Skip to main content

Full text of "119342260 Sanford Meisner On Acting B W"

See other formats


MEISNER 


O N 


ACT 


N G 


ife® 

?■ 

SANFORD MEISNER 


• ' ■• 

i#|f|p| 


msmMmmsm 




DENNIS LONGWELL 

INTRODUCTION BY SYDNEY POLLACK 


| ( -rlr?«pfe3 

lilil 


wmm 

mmm 


VINTAGE BOOKS 
A DIVISION OF RANDOM HOUSE NEW YORK 


is 



A Vintage Original, August 1987 
First Edition 

Copyright © 1987 by Sanford Meisner and 
Dennis Longwell 

All rights reserved under International and 
Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in 
the United States by Random House, Inc., New 
York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random 
House of Canada Limited, Toronto. 

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data 

Meisner, Sanford. 

Sanford Meisner on acting. 

“A Vintage original"—T.p. verso. 

1. Acting. I. Longwell, Dennis. II. Title. 
PN2061.M38 1987 7927028 86-46187 

ISBN 0-394-75059-4 (pbk.) 

Book design by Guenet Abraham i 

Manufactured in the United States of America 

Pages 251-252 constitute an extension 
of this copyright page. 

B98 ' 



For James Carville 



I wish the stage were as narrow as the wire of a tightrope dancer, so that 
no incompetent would dare step upon it. 

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749—1832): Wilhelm MeistersLebrjabre, 
book 4, chapter 2 

This quotation Meisner has framed and hung on the wall of his office. 



ggjggjj Acknowledgments 






I want to thank Kent Paul, who first suggested that I write this 
book, and whose friendly encouragement helped to keep me 
going when its end was only dimly in sight. I thank him, too, for 
lending me his archive on the Group Theatre, material which 
enriched the biographical sections of this work, and for generous 
permission to incorporate material drawn from transcripts of the 
excellent documentary film he produced, Sanford Meisner: The 
Theater’s Best Kept Secret. 

I am grateful also to Dorothy L. Swerdlove, Curator of the 
Billy Rose Theater Collection, for swiftly answering tough ques¬ 
tions, and to her colleagues on the Staff of the Performing Arts 
Research Center of the New York Public Library at Lincoln 



Center for their unflagging assistance. I received help also from 
the staff of the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor, 
New York, who secured for me dozens of urgently needed books 
from libraries throughout the state of New York. 

Sanford Meisner joins me in expressing deep appreciation to 
James Carville for his guidance and discipline in adhering to the 
clarity with which the technique was expressed. We also admire 
and thank our tireless agent, Connie Claussen, and our insightful 
editor, Joseph Fox. 

—Dennis Longwell 
Sag Harbor, New York 
October 1986 



VWE 


I Contents 


msMM 


iJS; 


Mi 


-. •. 1 

- ' 


sSIISkI 

plsfesi 

sjjffggjs 

Jgj§| 

If|§ 

m»m 

' t i 

”:Tr V:pj 

ftltStj 


,t~ 

..! 


Introduction by Sydney Pollack 
Prologue 


1. Setting the Scene: Duse’s Blush 

3 

2. Building a Foundation: The Reality of Doing 

16 

3. The Pinch and the Ouch 

26 

4. The Knock on the Door 

38 

5. Beyond Repetition 

57 

6. Preparation: “In the Harem of My Head” 

78 

7. Improvisation 

96 



8. More on Preparation: “Quick As Flame” 

9. The Magic As If: Particularization 

10. “Making the Part Your Own” 

11. Some Thoughts on Actors and on Acting 

12. Final Scenes: “Instead of Merely the Truth” 
Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind 

A Palm Tree in a Rose Garden by Meade Roberts 

Golden Boy by Clifford Odets 

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov 

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams 

(part 1, scene 6) 

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams 
(part 2, scene 11) 



■ gp| Introduction 

fjggl 

*- ' 


-4 • 


& 

fipsif 

Smmm 


;4-| 




■:1 




Mi 

-■• * v -’ 

fjjfl 

.1 

■ ifi 

Bm§iM 


We called him Sandy but it felt daring and dangerous, like order¬ 
ing a martini in a nightclub when you were sixteen and trying 
to pass for twenty-one. He was too awesome a presence for the 
familiarity of a first name. It was 1952 and I was eighteen years 
old and had blundered into his classes at the Neighborhood Play¬ 
house in New York. Nothing had prepared me for the intensity 
of this experience. It wasn’t that he was harsh or mean; it was 
only that he was so frighteningly accurate. You felt he knew 
every thought, impulse or feeling in your head, that he had an 
ability to x-ray your very being and there was absolutely no place 
to hide. Each time he spoke about acting he crystallized ideas that 
you somehow knew were true, even though you had no idea that 



x/v 


you’d ever sensed them before—like those physicists who dis¬ 
cover new particles simply because the theory for their existence 
is so beautiful. When Sandy spoke it was often difficult to keep 
from jumping up and shouting, “That’s true! That s right! That s 
absolutely right!” It was stunning to have him hurling those 
lightning bolts directly to the inside of your brain. One poor guy 
simply couldn’t contain himself and actually did blurt out, My 
God, that’s right!” Sandy simply mumbled, “Thank you, you’ve 
just confirmed twenty-five years of my work. 

Sanford Meisner’s work was, and is, to impart to students an 
organized approach to the creation of real and truthful behavior 
within the imaginary circumstances of the theater. Like his con¬ 
temporaries from the Group Theatre, he has been changing the 
face of American acting ever since he was first exposed to the 
ideas of Konstantin Stanislavsky in the nineteen thirties. Harold 
Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis and Sanford 
Meisner emerged from the Group Theatre as the preeminent 
teachers of what has come to be known as ‘the Method’, a kind 
of lazy label that refers to most of contemporary American act¬ 
ing. Each one of these teachers has really made his own method, 
honing down and personalizing his approach over the years. 
Though they all were extraordinary teachers, Sandy’s approach 
has always been for me the simplest, most direct, least preten¬ 
tious and most effective. 

The Neighborhood Playhouse offered a two-year intensive 
course in all aspects of the theater. It was unequalled anywhere, 
and even though the faculty boasted such luminaries as Martha 
Graham, Jane Dudley and Pearl Lang, it was Sandy’s daily acting 
classes that kept our adrenaline pumped up for two years. When 
I graduated in the spring of 1954, I was invited to return the 
following fall on a fellowship as his assistant, and so 1 had t e 
extraordinary opportunity to continue to learn from him for 
another six years until I moved to California in 1960 to begin 
directing. I had no aspirations to teach, and certainly none to 
direct, but the chance to continue to observe and learn from 
Meisner was impossible to pass up. When truths about one art are 
deep enough, they become true about all art, and so althoug 
Sandy addressed himself only to the art of acting, I was, without 




XV 


knowing it, absorbing the foundation of what would become a 
very specific approach to directing. The fact is that every area in 
which I function as a director—-writing, production design, cos¬ 
tume design, casting, staging, cinematography, even editing—is 
dominated by, and concerned with, the principles and ideas I’ve 
learned from Meisner. 

Sandy used to say, “It takes twenty years to become an actor.” 
We thought he was exaggerating. We should have known better; 
he wasn’t. He was referring to that time, if it should come, when 
all the principles and ideas would be chewed up and digested into 
a kind of actors’ instinct, a technique that functioned almost by 
itself. He never wanted the work to be about technique. If you 
were his student, you learned technique as a means to an end, \ 
never as an end in itself. You’d be surprised by how many acting 
teachers don’t understand that. 

In 1981, I went back to New York to film some of Meisner’s 
classes for a documentary. We worked in a small downtown 
theater given to us by Joe Papp. It had been twenty-one years 
since I had observed Sandy in action. Of course he had aged. He’d 
had a laryngectomy (the removal of his vocal cords), had been 
struck by a van that shattered his hip, had two cataract operations 
and wore thick glasses with a microphone attached to them to 
amplify the new way he’d learned to speak by swallowing air. 
But the same “high” was there in the class, the same intense 
concentration and the sense of falling forward into new areas of 
understanding and experience. Some contemporaries of mine, 
old-timers who had made the pilgrimage back to take the classes 
again, were present. They were just as nervous in front of him 
as they had always been—and they were learning just as much 
as they always had. The only vivid difference to me was that 
because of the effort involved for Sandy to speak, there were 
fewer words. When they came, they were like rich, boiled-down 
broth. (As I write this, I think of a remark made about Chekhov 
by Maxim Gorky: “In Chekhov’s presence everyone felt in him¬ 
self a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self.”) 

This is a book about acting. It’s also a book about a lot of other 
things by a man who has spent his life weeding away what is 
unnecessary, and trying to demystify this process of igniting an 



* 


actor's itnagrnation an«ning J* 

The first thing that will s > attitude about theory 

jumbo here, no mystenou , ^ of Sandy’s techniqu^|ffl| 

it may appear simple. A , it’s just the clarity wism 

appearance is deceptive. J *£ 0 has eve ’ r tried to work truly and| 
which he offers it. Any era knows that it .is 

privately on a stage or in ron of ^ ^ ^ 
anything but simple-at leas ^ can real i y tea ch the 

I believe there are only a few p P intelligent;' and con- 

technique of acting. Most are; weU-re about th e subject 

yotf tvbo^may be^diScovwfn^Sandy for the first time. 




When they learn that I teach acting, people who love the theater 
but are not of the theater often ask me just what one teaches to 
hopeful aspirants that turns them eventually into trained actors. 

“Decent diction, of course,” they go on to suppose. “And then 
voice control and bodily grace. But what else—or is there any¬ 
thing else?” 

There is. The other elements in a person’s training that will 
make him or her a distinctive and interesting actor are the most 
delicate factors that a teacher can impart. One can use standard 
principles and textbooks in educating people for law, medicine, 
architecture, chemistry or almost any other profession^—but not 
for the theater. For, in most professions, every practitioner uses 





xviii 

the same tools and techniques, while the actor’s chief instrument 
is himself. And since no two persons are alike, no universal rule 
is applicable to any two actors in exactly the same way. 

I once spent four lovely months in Puerto Rico in a little house 
on the beach where I went specifically to write a book about these 
matters. I wrote two chapters. Later, when I reread them, I didn’t 
understand them, and I thought that was the end of the book. I 
decided that a creative textbook about acting was a contradiction 
in terms, and that it was foolish, even wrong, to attempt to write 
one. . 

Still, friends whom I respected convinced me that my experi¬ 
ence in teaching young actors their craft was of value, and that 
perhaps with a collaborator my ideas could be put into the form 
of a book. A collaborator was found, a book was written, and I 
was bitterly disappointed at the results. My basic principles were 
now on paper, but, paradoxically, how I uniquely transmit my 
ideas wasn’t sufficiently apparent. My students weren’t in those 
pages either, nor was the classroom in which we interacted week 
in and week out. Lastly—and this was the greatest lack—the 
drama inherent in our interaction, as they struggled to learn 
what I struggled to teach, was missing. I came to realize that how 
I teach is determined by the gradual development of each stu¬ 
dent. 1 

That particular book was never published. My theatrical in¬ 
stinct should have told me why. The confessional mode is impos¬ 
sible to sustain at length in the theater, which is an arena where 
human personalities interlock in the reality of doing. When we 
think of the characters in-a play, we naturally think of them in 
active, objective terms. Oedipus, he. Phaedra, she. Exeunt Lear 
and the Fool. 

All this past history is related to explain to the reader the form 
this new collaboration has taken. In it I appear not as “I,” but as 
“he.” That is, I appear as I am: a teacher, surrounded by gifted 
students, of a difficult and ultimately mysterious art, that of act¬ 
ing. Bernard Shaw, who I believe was the greatest theater critic 
since Aristotle, wrote: “Self-betrayal, magnified to suit the optics 
of the theatre, is the whole art of acting.” By “self-betrayal,” 
Shaw meant the pure, unselfconscious revelation of the gifted 



xix 


actor’s most inner and most private being to the people in his 
audience. In these pages the student actors reveal themselves 
through the various demands of the exercises in order to achieve 
the self-knowledge needed to apply the basic principles of my 
concept of acting. I, too, betray myself in the sense that here, in 
order to teach what I know, I am forced to reveal much more of 
myself than any prudent man would confess to his priest. 

One final word: if I risk censure for making myself the central 
character in the chronicle that follows, I do so in the name of the 
art of theatrical self-revelation, which is exactly the role I play in 
in my classroom. Stage center! 


—Sanford Meisner 
New York City 
October 1986 



1 


Setting the Scene: Duse's Blush 

Everything should be as in real life. 

—Anton Chekhov to the cast of the first production 
of his play, The Seagull, St. Petersburg, 1896 


At first glance, except for the twin beds, the room resembles any 
number of small classrooms almost anywhere in the country. Its 
white plaster ceiling, pale yellow tongue-and-groove wooden 
walls and waxed, black-asphalt tile floor evoke the campus of a 
teachers’ college somewhere in the Midwest or, in its cloistered 
quiet, the interior of a one-room schoolhouse at dawn. 

To the left of the room’s center stands a large, gray wooden 
desk—clearly the teacher’s—set at an angle before a slate black¬ 
board. To its left is a wall of windows, which look out into a 
courtyard where, through Venetian blinds, only the tops of trees 
can be seen. Below the windows on a simple platform are two 
rows of folding chairs, about twenty in all, for the students. Two 


4 

framed exhortatory maxims written in the style of pseudo- 
illuminated manuscripts hang on either side of the blackboard. 
Be Specific! says one, and the other, An Ounce of BEHAVIOR 
is Worth a Pound of WORDS. 

The room seems ordinary except for the two beds, which some¬ 
one has pushed against the wall opposite the windows. Squat and 
wide, the beds were specially constructed of two-by-fours bolted 
together with six-inch steel bolts, and seem sturdy enough to 
support the combined weight of a soccer team. The striped tick¬ 
ing of each mattress is partially covered with a rumpled green 
cotton bedspread and a pillow without a pillowcase. Like the 
teacher’s desk, the beds have been painted battleship gray. There 
is something surreal about them. Perhaps it is their exaggerated 
sturdiness or their utilitarian color that makes them seem more 
like trampolines than beds or, conjoined as they are now, like the 
canvas-covered floor of a boxing ring. 

Other objects not noticeable at first share the Magritte-like 
surrealism of the beds: an empty bookcase with a black desk 
phone and two empty whiskey bottles on its top; a coatrack 
missing one of its three legs; a console television set with no 
insides; a mirror propped against the wall, reflecting the sky 
outside; a long wooden table also painted gray. Together they 
complete the room’s spare furnishings. 

In this special New York City classroom in the Neighborhood 
Playhouse School of the Theatre, as in dozens of similar rooms 
reaching back in time to the early 1930s, Sanford Meisner has 
taught acting. After fifty years the number of his students is 
unknown, but it certainly runs into the thousands. While no 
individual can speak'for all of them, perhaps Joanne Woodward, 
who studied first as a college student with Sandy (as he is invari¬ 
ably called by his students) and later returned to him as an adult, 
suggests most succinctly what he may mean to the majority of 
them. “I went back to Sandy because to me he was a teacher,” 
Miss Woodward recalled recently. “To me he was the. only 
teacher. This was after I had done Three Faces of Eve and had won 
an Academy Award. It was 1959, and it was a revelation to me. 
It was a whole turning point in my growth as an actress.” 

The American playwright David Mamet, who studied acting 



SETTING THE SCENE: DUSE'S BLUSH 


5 


with Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, also spoke re¬ 
cently of his importance. “Here was a man who, especially to my 
generation in the sixties, actually knew something. One of the 
first authentic people that I, and most of us, had ever met in our 
lives. Of course he was autocratic about those things he believed 
in because he knew them to be the truth. And we knew we were 
being exposed to the truth—that is, to something which was 
absolutely practicable, which absolutely worked, and which we 
wanted desperately to learn.”* 


Sanford Meisner was born on August 31, 1905, in the Greenpoint 
section of the New York borough of Brooklyn, the firstborn child 
of Herman and Bertha Meisner. The Meisners, both Jews who 
had emigrated from Hungary—she as a baby, he as a young man 
of sixteen—fled the anti-Semitism of the Polish immigrants of 
Greenpoint and moved to the Bronx a few months after the birth 
of their son. They settled in an area, of the South Bronx in a house 
on Honeywell Avenue where, two years later, a second son, 
Jacob, was born. During a trip to the Catskills, made in an effort 
to improve three-year-old Sanford’s health, little Jacob was inad¬ 
vertently given unpasteurized milk to drink, and the disastrous 
result was a wasting disease, bovine tuberculosis, from which the 
second son never recovered. 

“I have had considerable experience in psychoanalysis," 
Meisner recently told an interviewer, “so I know quite clearly 
that the death of my brother when I was five and he was three 
was the dominant emotional influence in my life from which I 
have never, after all these years,, escaped. When I went to school 
—after school, anytime—I lived in a state of isolation as if I was 
some kind of moral leper, because my parents, who were good 
people but not too bright, told me that if it hadn’t been for me, 
they wouldn’t have had to go to the country, where my younger 

*The Woodward and Mamet quotes are from transcripts of filmed inter¬ 
views made for the documentary Sanford Meisner: The Theater’s Best Kept Secret, 
produced by Kent Paul and distributed by Columbia Pictures. 



6 

brother got ill, and from which illness he died. The guilt that this 
caused was horrendous. In my childhood I rarely had friends. I 
lived, as I’m afraid I still do, in a world of fantasy.” , 

Afister, Ruth, to whom Meisner was close—she died in 1983 
—and a second brother, Robert, born when Meisner was sixteen 
and the family had moved to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, 
and with whom he has lost contact, completed the household. 

Meisner remembers telling his first-grade teacher that he 
wanted to be “an actor” when he grew up, and, during his teen¬ 
age years, directing various cousins in tableaux vivants based on 
themes of death and honor inspired by newsreel views of Ameri¬ 
can soldiers in World War One. But for most of his youth he 
found an emotional release in playing the family’s piano. After 
graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1923, he entered 
the Damrosch Institute of Music (later absorbed into the Juilliard 
School) for an additional year’s study of the piano and related 
subjects. But the idea of acting professionally persisted, and at 
nineteen he began. 

“I always wanted to be an actor,” Meisner recalls. “I had a 
friend—I was in Flatbush then^-who also wanted to be an actor; 
his name was Monkey Tobias. He told me that a place called the 
Theatre Guild was hiring kids, so I went there. Philip Loeb and 
Theresa Helburn interviewed me, and I remember lying elabo¬ 
rately about my past in the theatre; it may'have started with 
Salvini for all I know. I remember them laughing, but not laugh¬ 
ing at me. So I got a job as an extra in Sidney Howard’s They Knew 
What They Wanted, and starring in it was the great Pauline Lord. 
She was a genius, pure and simple. She’d sit backstage and work 
on her crossword puzzles. ‘What’s a three-letter word for some¬ 
thing a man wears on his head?’ she’d ask. ‘Hat? Cap?’ How could 
she decide? That’s how simple she was. But she was a genius. She 
had been the original Anna Christie, and I loved to see her play. 
By that time I was beginning to realize that acting which really 
dug at me was what I was looking for.” 

Herman Meisner had become a furrier on his. arrival from 
Hungary, a job he held for over fifty years. His son does a won¬ 
derfully funny imitation of Herman in which he is introduced to 
a young woman wearing a mink coat, suavely kisses her hand and 



7 


SETTING THE SCENE: DUSE’S BLUSH 

then deftly blows onto the sleeve of the coat to determine the 
quality and value of the fur. A career in clothing manufacturing 
was his father's expressed wish for him, and briefly, to please his 
father, Meisner worked as a stockboy in a pants factory and a lace 
store. This was before his success at the Theatre Guild. The elder 
Meisner’s response to his son’s new career was at first stunned 
silence. “I told them at dinner,” he recalls. “I announced that I 
had become an actor. Dead silence. No one said a word. My 
father, my mother, my sister. Then, during dessert, my father 
asked, ‘How much are they paying you?’ I said, ‘Well, after the 
first four weeks, if the play is a success, they give you ten dollars 
a week.’ All hell broke loose! The chaos, the eruption at the table 
when I said ten dollars a week was terrific! But I went right on!” 

Meisner received a scholarship to study at the Theatre Guild 
School of Acting, which was directed by Winifred Lenihan, an 
American actress who had been the first to perform Bernard 
Shaw’s Saint Joan' in New York. She was, in Meisner’s opinion, 
“a stock-company technician,” and the school was “a very medio¬ 
cre place.” At this time Meisner was introduced through a musi¬ 
cian friend to Aaron Copland, a young composer newly returned 
from studying in Paris, who in turn introduced him to a recent 
student at the Sorbonne, his friend Harold Clurman, who, Cop¬ 
land realized, was as passionate about the theater as Meisner was. 
In a short time Clurman became a stage manager, then a play 
reader, for the Theatre Guild. Through this friendship, Meisner 
was introduced to another young theater lover, Lee Strasberg. 
“Strasberg had a great, uplifting influence on me,” Meisner re¬ 
calls. “He introduced me to quality actors and artists of various 
kinds, and this helped enormously to solidify my emotional 
needs. I learned from him. I solidified my natural tastes and 
inclinations with his help. For example, together we went to the 
Metropolitan Opera and saw the great Russian singer Chaliapin. 
What made him preeminent was his possession of deep emotional 
truth and theatricality of form.” 

Clurman and Strasberg joined with another Theatre Guild 
worker, Cheryl Crawford, and in 1931, after three years of talks 
and fund-raising, the triumvirate selected twenty-eight actors to 
form the legendary Group Theatre. Although it existed as an 



8 

institution for, only ten years, the Group was to exert a profound 
influence on the developing art of American acting. Meisner, 
only twenty-five at the time, was a founding member. The result 
was fortuitous. “Without the Group,” Meisner has said, I would 
have been in the fur business.” 

For an insight into the importance of the Group Theatre in the 
artistic life of the United States in the 1930s, here are the words 
of playwright Arthur Miller: 

“[My] sole sense of connection with theater came when I saw 
the productions of the Group Theatre,” Miller wrote in the 
introduction to his Collected Plays (published in 1957, over three 
decades after the Group had been disbanded). It was not only 
the brilliance of ensemble acting, which in my opinion has never 
/been equalled since in America, but the air of union created 
between actors and the audience. Here was the promise of pro¬ 
phetic theater which suggested to my mind the Greek situation 
when religion and belief were five heart of drama. I watched the 
Group Theatre from fifty-five-cept'seats in the balcony, and at 
intermission time it was possible to feel the heat and the passion 
of people moved not only in their bellies but in their thoughts. 
If I say that my own writer’s ego found fault with the plays, it 
does not detract from the fact that the performances were almost 
all inspiring to me. ...” 

When in 1938 the Group Theatre took to London its most 
Celebrated production, Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (in which 
Meisner played the featured role of the menacing gangster, Eddie 
Fuseli), the critic for the London Times , James Agate, said simply: 
“The acting attains a level which is something we know nothing 
at all about.” 

The source for the quality of the acting in the Group Theatre 
sprang from the famed Moscow Art Theatre and from the theory 
and practice of acting, the System, evolved by its co-director, 
Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky was doubly important to 
the Group. First, he was the teacher of Richard Boleslavski and 
Maria Ouspenskaya, two noted Moscow Art Theatre actors who 




9 


" SETTING THE SCENE: DUSE'S BLUSH 

emigrated to New York and in 1924 founded the American Labo¬ 
ratory Theatre. In its six years of activity, this school trained 
several hundred American actors and directors in an early ver¬ 
sion of the Stanislavsky System. Actresses Stella Adler, Ruth 
Nelson and Eunice Stoddard were students and members of the 
Lab’s repertory company before joining the Group. Lee Stras- 
berg was a student there in 1924, and he and Harold Clurman also 
studied in the directors unit. 

Clurman was later to write in his history of the Group 
Theatre, The Fervent Years: “The first effect [of the Stanislavsky 
System] on the actors was that of a miracle. . . . Here at last was 
a key to that elusive ingredient of the stage, true emotion. And 
Strasberg [wfio was the chief director of the Group’s productions 
during its early years] was a fanatic on the subject of true emo¬ 
tion. Everything was secondary to it. He sought it with the 
patience of an inquisitor, he was outraged by trick substitutes, 
and when he had succeeded in stimulating it, he husbanded it, fed 
it, and protected it. Here was something new to most, of the 
actors, something basic, something almost holy. It was revelation 
in the theatre; and Strasberg was its prophet.” 

Stanislavsky’s second point of contact with the Group was 
more direct. In the spring of 1934 Harold Clurman and Stella 
Adler met with the Russian director, who was convalescing in 
Paris, and for more than five weeks Miss Adler worked with him 
to clarify those aspects of the System (in the version taught to her 
by Strasberg) that caused difficulty for her and other members of 
the Group. The result of her work, which she reported to the 
Group the following summer, was to deemphasize the impor¬ 
tance Strasberg had placed on “affective memory”—which might 
be defined as the conscious attempt on the part of the actor to 
remember the circumstances surrounding an emotion-filled 
event from his real past in order to stimulate an emotion which 
he could use on the stage. Rather, Miss Adler said, Stanislavsky 
now thought that the key to true emotion was to be found in a 
full understanding of the “given circumstances”—the human 
problems—contained in the play itself. This shift of emphasis 
was critical, and it led directly to a diminution of'Strasberg’s hold 



on the acting company and to his eventual resignation from the 
Group in 1935. On this issue, Meisner sided with Stella Adler, 
who was later to become a noted acting teacher and close friend, 
and affective or emotional memory plays no role in the system 
Meisner has evolved. 

When an interviewer asked, “How were you introduced to the 
Stanislavsky System?” Meisner’s reply was straightforward. In 
the Group Theatre, by the pioneer leadership of Harold Clur^ 
man and Lee Strasberg; from Stella Adler, who worked with 
Stanislavsky and to whom I listened attentively and rewardingly, 
and by the actor Michael Chekhov, who made me realize that 
truth, as in naturalism, was far from the whole truth. In him I 
witnessed exciting theatrical form with no loss of inner content, 
and I knew that I wanted this too. And finally, from the lucid and 
objective approach of [Ilya] Sudakov and [I ] Rapoport,” Russian 
theorists whose writings stressed the importance of the reality of 
doing, the foundation of Meisner’s system, and were circulated 
throughout the Group in an English translation in the 1930s. 


On November 30, 1936, the Group Theatre’s new production, 
Johnny Johnson (.A Legend), by Paul Green opened. The play is 
remembered today primarily for its musical score, which was the 
first work the German expatriate Kurt Weill wrote in the United 
States. In the program for the play, under “Who s Who in the 
Cast,” Sanford Meisner published a biographical note which is 
remarkable on two counts. First, it provides an insight into how 
he felt about his career as an actor; second, the final sentence 
announces the beginning of a new career: “Sanford Meisner 
(Captain Valentine) was so long entrusted with the carrying o 
a spear that it came as a great shock—but a pleasant one-—to see 
him do a full-fledged characterization in ‘Gold Eagle Guy.’ [This 
work, by Melvin Levy, was produced in 1934.] He carried the 

* Paul Gray, “The Reality of Doing," Tulane Drama Review (special edition, 
“Stanislavsky in America”), FallT964,‘139. 



11 


JpSflNG THE SCENE: DUSE’S BLUSH 

spear for both the Theatre Guild, whose school he attended, and 
for the Group. Meisner is a native of the borough of Brooklyn, 
although he took care to attend school in Manhattan. His school¬ 
ing included the Damrosch Conservatory, which turned him into 
a skilled pianist. Since ‘Gold Eagle Guy’ he has regularly ap¬ 
peared in featured roles for the Group. He teaches acting at the 
Neighborhood Playhouse.” 

This shift from spear carrier to teacher is an amusing meta¬ 
phor.. In reality, Meisner’s career as an actor had blossomed. In 
he previous season alone, he had created critically acclaimed 
roles in two plays by the Group’s resident playwright, Clifford 
Odets: Sam Feinschreiber in Awake and Sing! and the young son, 
Julie, who is afflicted with sleeping sickness in Paradise Lost, the 
part Meisner considers the finest of his career. In addition he had 
co-directed with Odets the latter’s famous one-act play, Waiting 
for Lefty. In the future, Meisner was to play important roles in 
such Odets works as Rocket to the Moon (1938) and Night Music 
(1940), and he continued to act in the theater long after the Group 
disbanded in 1941. His last stage role was Norbert Mandel in 
S. N. Behrman’s The Cold Wind and the Warm, directed by Harold 
Clurman, which opened in December 1958. The following year, 
after a rift with the administration of the Neighborhood Play¬ 
house, he became director of the New Talent Division of 20th 
Century-Fox and moved to Los Angeles, where he began a prom¬ 
ising career as a film actor. 

But emotionally it was only teaching that fulfilled Meisner in 
his maturity in the profound way that the piano had fulfilled him 
as a youth. “The only time I am free and enjoying myself is when 
I’m teaching,” he has repeatedly said. “I love the analysis of 
technique. I like to work with people who bring a certain serious¬ 
ness and depth to what they’re doing. I feel alive and related 
when I’m teaching. I get an emotional release from it.” The 
reason why is readily understandable. “All my exercises,” he told 
an interviewer nearly a decade ago, “were designed to strengthen 
the guiding principle that I learned forcefully in the Group— 
that art expresses human experience—which principle I have 
never and will never give up: So now, after about forty years, I 



12 

am the possessor of a way of working with actors that in practice 
seems to have worked beneficially.”* 

In 1962 Meisner returned to New York to direct the acting 
department of the newly founded American Musical Theatre 
Academy. Two years later, he returned to the Neighborhood 
Playhouse, where he remains today. Clearly the Playhouse is a 
haven to him now, just as it was when he first began to teach 
there fifty years ago and announced his appointment in the Play¬ 
bill for Johnny Johnson—an act perhaps related to announcing his 
decision to become an actor to his incredulous family at dinner 
when he was only nineteen. 

Today, more than sixty years later, advanced age and accidents 
have produced awesome’ physical disabilities in Meisner. He 
wears thick glasses as a result of multiple operations for cataracts 
and detached retinas of both eyes. Even more devastating have 
been the .two operations he sustained for cancer of the larynx, 
the. first more than ten years ago, which left him literally with¬ 
out a voice. With great difficulty he subsequently learned to 
speak again by inhaling air into his esophagus and releasing it in 
controlled burps. This esophageal speech may be disturbing to 
those hearing it for the first time, though the listener quickly 
adapts to it. It is a strangely disembodied wheeze broken by 
explosive consonant sounds and glottal stops, sometimes fits of 
coughing. When Meisner teaches now, this “voice” is amplified 
by a microphone attached to the left temple of his glasses, and 
connected to a small transmitter, which sends it to a loudspeaker 
across the room from his desk, thereby emphasizing its eerie, 
disembodied quality. As if these blows had not been enough, 
three years ago an out-of-control delivery truck struck him while 
he was Crossing the street, smashing his left femur and hip in 
twelve places. After surgical reconstruction, he walks stiffly with 
the help of a cane. Now, during summer and in the dead of 
winter, he leaves New York for a home he and a close friend, 

* Suzanne Shepherd, “Sanford Meisner,” Yale/Tbeatre , vol. 8, nos. 2 and 3, 
42-43. T- ’ 



13 


SETTING THE SCENE: DUSE'S BLUSH 

James Carville, built twenty years ago on the island of Bequia in 
the West Indies. The warm air and water ofthe tropics are a great 
comfort to him. 

.. StillyMeisner continues to teach. In his mind, he once told an 
interviewer, he imagines himself to be like “a well-known 
painter” (a reference to the French artist Raoul Dufy, probably 
as seen at work in the famous Brassai photograph). “When he was 
in his eighties his hands were so crippled with arthritis that he 
couldn’t hold the brush, Well, he got someone to tape it onto his 
hand somehow, and he kept on painting. Now, with all my limi¬ 
tations—I can’t talk, my eyes are bad—I come back to this freez¬ 
ing city to teach again! Some people think they’ve talked me into 
it. That’s not so. No one can talk me into anything that I don’t 
want to do. I want to do it. I’m happiest when I’m teaching.”* 

Perhaps the reason why lies in the miracle Harold Clurman 
discussed, the “almost holy” miracle of true emotion. Or perhaps 
it is rooted in the statement Meisner made, that through the 
genius of Pauline Lord “I was beginning to realize that acting 
which really dug at me was what I was looking for.” 

“Did I tell you the story about Eleonora Duse?” Meisner recently 
asked a visitor to his office. “I never told you that?” After being 
assured that he hadn’t, he recounted George Bernard Shaw’s 
1895 review of the legendary Italian actress in Hermann Suder- 
mann’s Heimat [Home] (it was also known as Magda x the role Duse 
assumed). This is what Shaw wrote: 

“Magda is a daughter who has been turned out of doors for 
defying her father, one of those outrageous persons who mistake 
their desire to have everything their own way in the house for 
a sacred principle of home life. She has a hard time of it, but at 
last makes a success as an opera singer, though not until her 
lonely struggles have thrown her for sympathy on a fellow stu¬ 
dent, who in due time goe‘s his way, and leaves her to face mother- 

* Shepherd, loc. cit. 



14 

hood as best she can. In the fullness of her fame she returns to 
her native town, and in an attack of homesickness makes ad¬ 
vances to her father, who consents to receive her again. No 
sooner is she installed in the house than she finds that one of the 
most intimate friends of the family is the father of her child. In 
the third act of the play she is on the stage when he is announced 
as a visitor. . . . 

“The moment she read the card handed her by the servant, you 
realized what it was to have to face a meeting with the man. It 
was interesting to watch how she got through it when he came 
in, and how, on the whole, she got through it pretty well. He paid 
his compliments and offered his flowers; they sat down; and she 
evidently felt that she had got it safely over and might allow 
herself to think at her ease, and to look at him to see how much 
he had altered. Then a terrible thing happened tp her. She began 
to blush; and in another moment she was conscious of it, and the 
blush was slowly spreading and deepening until, after a few vain 
efforts to avert her face or to obstruct his view of it without 
seeming to do so, she gave up and hid the blush in her hands. 
After that feat of acting I did not need to be told why Duse does 
not paint an inch thick. I could detect no trick in it: it seemed to 
me a perfectly genuine effect of the dramatic imagination . . . and 
I must confess to an intense professional curiosity as to whether 
it always comes spontaneously.” 

Meisner’s paraphrase of this account is brief, but it is correct 
in its essential details. Moreover, his enthusiasm and genuine 
wonder at Shaw’s story of Duse’s blush, a story he has told 
hundreds of times, is infectious. It is as though time has stopped, 
and Sanford Meisner can live forever in the miracle'of this mo¬ 
ment. For a moment, one can understand how this extraordinary 
man has lived such an extraordinary life. 

“Duse played in a play called Magda. There’s a scene in the last 
act. When she’s a young girl she has an affair with a guy from the 
same village, and she has a child by him. Twenty-five years later, 
or thereabouts, she comes back to visit her family ■yvho live in this 
town, and her ex-lover comes to call on her. She accepts his 
flowers—I got this from Shaw—and they sit and talk. All of a 
sudden she realizes that she’s blushing, and it gets so bad that she 



15 


SETTING THE SCENE: DUSE'S BLUSH 


drops her head and hides her face in embarrassment. Now that’s 
a piece of realistic acting! And Shaw confesses to a certain profes¬ 
sional curiosity as to whether it happens every time she plays that 
part. It doesn’t. But that blush is the epitome of living truthfully 
under imaginary circumstances, which is my definition of good 
acting. That blush came out of her. She was a genius!” 



; Building a Foundation: The Reality of Doing 

meisner: What’s the first thing that happens when they 
build the World Trade Center—you know that building? 
male student: They dig a hole. 

meisner: Well, of course they dig a hole. They don’t glue it 
to the sidewalk! [Laughter. ] What’s the first thing they did 
when they built the Empire State Building? 
female student: They had to put down a foundation .first. 
meisner: They had to put down a foundation on which . . . 
'female student: . . . they built the building. 

I meisner: . . . they built the building. 


September 29 


“The foundation of acting is the reality of doing.” 

It is the first moment of the first class of the semester, and 
without delay Sanford Meisner states and restates this seemingly 
simple theme. “Wait a minute, let’s say that again. The foundation 
of acting is the reality of doing. The reality of doing. Now, how do 
you know what that means? I’ll clarify it.” After a brief pause he 
asks, “Are you listening to me? Are you really listening to me?” 

The students respond in chorus, “Yes, yes.” 

“You’re not pretending that you’re listening; you’re listening. 
You’re really listening. Would you say so?" 

“Yes, yes.” 


. “ That's the reality of doing. Let there be no question about 
what I’m saying here. If you do something, you really do it! Did 
you walk up the steps to this classroom this morning? You didn’t 
jump up? You didn’t skip up, right? You didn’t do a ballet pir¬ 
ouette? You really walked up those steps.” 

He pauses to adjust the small microphone attached to the left 
temple of his eyeglasses. “How many of you are listening to me 
now?” Sixteen hands are raised obediently. “Now, listen to me 
for a minute. Just for yourselves, listen to the number of cars that 
you hear outside. Do that.” 

The students, eight men and eight women in their twenties 
and early thirties, lean forward, straining to hear the sounds of 
New York City traffic filtering through the whir of the air-condi¬ 
tioner. After a moment some close their eyes. A minute passes. 

“Okay,” Meisner says to a young man with a neat brown 
beard, “how many cars did you hear?” 

“None,”, the student replies. “I heard a plane.” 

“A plane is not a car. You heard none. Let me ask you this: did 
you listen as yourself or were you playing some character?” 

“As myself.” 

“What about you?” he asks a thin, dark girl who looks like a 
model. 

“At first I was listening as a student.” 

“That’s a character—” 

“And then I was confused because I couldn’t hear a car, and 
the sounds were confusing. Then I heard what I’m pretty sure 
was a car, and then I got bored, and then I heard another car. So 
I heard two cars.” 

“We won’t discuss the boredom.” The class laughs. “Were you, 
as you said, listening—what’s your name?” 

“Anna.” 

“Were you listening as. Anna?” 

“At the end.” 

“So part of your acting was legitimate and two-thirds of it was 
pretending.” 

“Yes.” 

“How many cars did you hear?” The question is directed 




to a woman in her late twenties with luxurious dark hair. 
“1 couldn’t be sure which sounds were cars.” 

“Were you really puzzled, or were you.puzzled in character? 

“I don’t know. It felt as though I was not quite doing some¬ 
thing all the time.” ■ ' . 

“So you were half an actress.” Then, to a young man in a plaid 
wool shirt and jeans, “How many cars did you hear? 

“None.” ' 

. “None. Did you listen as—” 

“I listened as me, just as John.” 

“That’s what I want to know. It’s a nice feeling. Okay, now 
choose a, melody that you like and sing it to yourself just to 
yourself, not out loud. Clear? Do it.” 

Again some students close their eyes, and after a few seconds 
of concentration heads begin bobbing, marking time to melodies 
only individually heard. 

“How many people were doing it? Meisner asks. For your¬ 
selves or theatrically? Who can answer that? 

“Half and half.” It is the young woman called Anna. 

“You have a problem. What’s your problem?” 

“I was very aware of being in a room filled with people con¬ 
sciously listening to different melodies. About halfway through 
I got so upset with myself that I was able to forget about it. 
“And sing?” 

“Yes.” , 

“That’s when you were good.” 

“That’s when I enjoyed it, I don’t know if I was good.” 

“It’s always enjoyable to be good.” He pauses a moment and 
shifts his gaze to a stocky, blond, boyish young man in the front 
row. “What about you?” 

“I was singing to myself.” 

“Like Hamlet?” , 

“I was trying to enjoy the melody. ’ 

“You were? For yourself, not as Hamlet? 

“For myselfi” * 

Next Meisner asks the class to count the number of light bulbs 
in the room. The answers range between twelve and sixteen, 



BUILDING A FOUNDATION. THE REALITY OF DOING 1 9 

depending on whether one includes the red bulb over the fire- 
escape exit sign or excludes the three unlit floodlights angled 
down from a beam in the middle of the ceiling. The answers are 
unimportant; what is crucial is the doing of the task, the counting 
of the light bulbs, not the results. “Did you count in character 
—theatrically,” Meisner asks, “or did you count? 

“Nine hundred and thirty-one times eighteen—try to do that 
in your head,” he goes on. “Nine thirty-one times eighteen.” The 
correct answer is 16,758, and no one even comes close to figuring 
it out. Again, that’s not the point. “You may be right, you may 
be wrong,” Meisner says. “That’s like life. People come to differ¬ 
ent conclusions. That’s why some are Democrats and some are 
Republicans. But how many tried? You know, it’s all right to be 
wrong, but it’s not all right not to try. ” 


“Look,” Meisner says, “examine the partner sitting next to you. 
And give me, when I ask for it, a list of what you observe.” 
Sixteen heads turn to scan the person now called, for the first 
time, “the partner.” 

When she is asked, the blond girl in the second row says about 
the young man seated to her right: “I observed red hair. I ob¬ 
served a soft green shirt which had pink and gray and beige 
stripes and that was a size medium. I observed a rash on his neck. 
He has blue eyes and short, thin, lighter-colored eyelashes. Small 
hands. Kind of burly. Leans over a lot. Stocky. Green pants. 
Brown shoes—leather, with rubber soles, I think. Clean ears and 
clean fingernails. Small lips that stay closed and mostly turn 
under—” 

“Okay. Was this observation done by you or by some character 
out of a play?” 

“I don’t know the answer. In honesty, I can’t quite distinguish 
which is which.” 

“Are you talking to me now, or is Lady Macbeth talking?” 

“I’m talking to you.” 

“That’s you. That’s you in person. Your observation was 
straight, unadulterated observation. What you observed, you ob- 



20 - 

served, not a character in a play.” He asks John, the young man 
in the plaid shirt, “Are you looking at me now?” 

“Yes.” 

“As Othello?” 

“No.” • 

“As who?” 

“As myself, I guess.” 

“That’s right. Can you hold on to that?” 

“I want to ask you a question and I want you, please, for your 
own sake as well as mine, to tell the truth. How many people in 
this class can hear very well?” After a moment’s confusion, six¬ 
teen hands are raised. “Now listen, I’m holding you to some¬ 
thing. Everybody says he or she can hear. You can hear? You can 
hear me?” 

They answer, “Yes.” 

“I want to ask you another question, one a little more difficult. 
You say you can hear. That’s good. Can you repeat what you hear 
absolutely accurately? I’m talking simply. I don’t mean the Dec¬ 
laration of Independence. I mean, ‘Do you drink coffee?’ Can you 
repeat that?” ■ 

“Do you drink coffee?” asks a young woman with short, 
brown, layered hair. ■ 

“You did that, so you can. Now, do you know what you’re 
telling me? First of all, you said you can hear. You also said you 
can repeat what you hear. You can take it back if you want to! 
All right; I accept.” 

“We can repeat the words,” says a dark, broad-shouldered 
young woman. 

“That’s all I ask—not the spirit, just the words.” 

“No,” says the woman. “I meant we can’t repeat exactly what 
we hear. We can only repeat our own representation of the 
words.” 

“You can repeat exactly what you hear. Want me to prove it 
to you?” 

“I believe you.” 

“What’s your name?” 



BUILDING A FOUNDATION: THE REALITY OF DOING 2 i 

“Rose Marie.” 

“Rose Marie, why should you believe me? ‘Your hair is long.’ 
Repeat that." 

“Your hair is long.” 1 u. . 

“So you can do it! You see, I did not recite the first act of Uncle 
Vanya, which perhaps you have never heard before. Now, who’s 
your partner?” John, the young man in the plaid shirt, raises his 
hand. “Now,, look at her. What do you observe about her? Not 
her spirit, but something about her that has some interest for 
you.” 

“She’s very ... I was going to say she’s very fresh and open.” 

“That’s an emotional observation. I’m not quite that smart. I 
see that she has a pink sweater.” 

“Okay.” 

“I’m going to tell you something. You’re a thinker.” 

“I know,” John says, “that’s why I’m here.” 

“Then stop immediately!” The class laughs. “Do you see that 
she has a pink sweater? Do you see that her hair needs combing? 
Do you see the color of her slacks?” 

“Yes.” 

“Now, you told me that you can hear and you told me that you 
can repeat, which means that, starting with something that exists 
in her, you should find what interests you and make a comment. 
Then, Rose Marie, you repeat exactly what he says, and you, 
John, repeat exactly what she says. Do this until I stop you.” 

“Your, hair is shiny,” John says. 

“Your hair is shiny,” Rose Marie repeats. 

“Your hair is shiny.” 

“Your hair is shiny.” 

“Your hair is shiny.” 

“Your hair is shiny.” 

“Your hair is shiny.” 

“No,” says Meisner stopping them, “you’re making readings 
in order to create variety. Don’t. Do it again, using another 
observation.” ■ 

After a moment John says, “Your earring is small,” and Rose 
Marie says, “Your earring is small.” They repeat the sentence 
five or six times until Meisner stops them. 




“Okay, now I believe that you can both hear, and I believe that 
you can repeat what you hear. It’s not the whole story, but it’s 
the beginning of something. You observed her earrings. You 
commented on them. You repeated what you heard. So far you 
were listening to each other and were repeating what you heard. 
That’s what I asked you to do." 

The students pair off, and the exercise, which Meisner.calls the 
Word Repetition Game, is performed again and again. The boy¬ 
ish, blond young man, whose name is Philip, becomes the partner 
of the brunette with the layered haircut, whose name is Sarah. 
They repeat his comment, “Your eyes are blue,” over and over 
until Meisner stops them. 

“All right,” he says. “This probably seems unbelievably silly, 
doesn’t it? But it’s the beginning of something. Are you listening 
to each other? Are you repeating what you hear? You are.” 

After another couple repeat “You have bright earrings,” he 
says, “It’s mechanical, it’s inhuman, but it’s the basis for some¬ 
thing. It’s monotonous, but it’s the basis for something.” 

After Anna and her partner repeat “Your shirt has bright pink 
lettering on it” a dozen or mote times, he says, “Yes, that’s cor¬ 
rect. It’s empty, it’.s inhuman,-right? But it has something in it. 
It has connection. Aren’t they listening to each other? That’s the 
connection. It’s a connection which comes from listening to each 
other, but it has no human quality—yet. If you want to take 
notes, write down ‘This is a Ping-Pong game.’ It is the basis of 
what eventually becomes emotional dialogue.” 

Meisner pauses for a moment. “Now I’m going to show you 
where the trouble comes in.” He turns to a young woman wear¬ 
ing her brown hair in a thick braid. “You have an embroidered 
blouse. Is that true?” 

“No.” 

“Then what’s the answer?” 

“No, I do not have an embroidered blouse.” 

“That’s right!” he says. “That is the repetition from her point 
of view. Immediately it becomes a contact between two human 
beings.” He says to Sarah, “You’re carrying a pen.” 

“Yes, I’m carrying a pen.” 



23 


BUILDING A FOUNDATION: THE REALITY OF DOING 


“Yes, you are.” 

“Yes, l am.” 

_ “That’s right! Already it has become human speech, hasn’t it? 
First, there’s the mechanical repetition. Then there’s the repeti¬ 
tion from your point of view.” He looks at the youhg woman 
with the luxurious dark hair. “You curl your hair.” 

“Yes, I curl my hair.” 

“Yes, you do.” • 

“Yes, I curl my hair.” 

“I said, ‘Yes, you do.’ ” 

“Yes, I do.” 

“Yes, I can see you do.” 

“Yes, you can see I do.” 

“Let it go at that. That’s the Word Repetition Game from your 
point of view. That’s already human conversation, isn’t it?” 
Then, to the young man whose shirt has bright pink lettering on 
it, Meisner says, “You’re staring at me.” 

“I’m staring at you.” 

“You’re staring at me.” 

“I’m staring at you.” 

“You admit it?” 

“I admit it.” 

“You admit it.” 

“I admit it.” 

“I don’t like it.” 

“You don’t like it.” 

“You don’t care?” 

“I don’t care.” 

“You don’t care?” 

“I don’t care!” 

Meisner sticks out his tongue at the young man, and he and the 
class laugh. 

“That’s the Word Repetition Game. It mustn’t go too far; I 
won’t let it. Now, when you work together at home, do the 
exercise mechanically, the way you started it. Then practice 
doing it from your point of view.” 



V 


“I started this class by saying that the basis of acting is the reality 
of doing. How does that definition compare with what we’ve 
been doing?” 

John says, “If we simply do it, we’re not jfocusing on our¬ 
selves.” 

“You’re attached to something outside of yourself,” Meisner 
adds. “What else?” 

“If you’re really doing it, then you don’t have time to watch 
yourself doing it. You only have the time and energy to do it,” 
says Ray, the young man with the neat beard. 

“That’s very good for your acting. Anything else?” 

Sarah says, “They all seem to be very concrete, ‘do-able’ 
things.” 

“Everything I’ve asked you has been concrete and ‘do-able’? 
What about that word‘concrete’?” 

“Well, it’s tangible. You can look at somebody and actually 
count their eyelashes or you can count the light bulbs.” 

“Something that really, really'exists specifically,” Meisner says. 
Now, what does ‘the reality of doing’ mean?” 

An intense-looking young man who has not spoken before 
says, “When you do something you really do it rather than pre¬ 
tend that you’re doing it.” 

“And you don’t do it like a character. When you.play the piano, 
do you open the lid first, or do you just play it closed?” Meisner 
asks. “Well, musically speaking, the opening of the piano is simi¬ 
lar to the reality of doing. Are there any questions here?” 

“You gave us things to do that you can really do, like observing 
another person or listening to cars,” says Ray. “And if you’re 
really concentrated on just listening to cars or looking at a per¬ 
son, you don’t have to worry about being a character. You have 
one thing to do and concentrate on.” 

“That is the character.” 

“That’s the character?” Ray asks; 

“Yes.” 

“So you don’t have to play at being the character, it’s right 
there in your doing it.” 




25 


BUILDING A FOUNDATION: THE REALITY OF DOING 

“Right. Do you understand that? Every play, whether it’s by 
that comedy writer—what’s his name?” 

“Neil Simon?” 

“Yeah. Every play is based upon the reality of doing. Even 
Lear’s shaking his fist at the heavens—that’s based on the actor 
thundering against fate. Can you see that?” He pauses. “This will 
go further in you than you may suspect at the moment. That s 
all right. It will unveil itself. It will reveal itself gradually. It is 
the basis, the foundation of acting.” 

I! 

“Another beginning. You’d think I’d quit!” Meisner says to his. 
assistant, Scott Roberts, as they wait for the elevator which will 
take them to Meisner’s paneled office one floor below the class¬ 
room. “Somebody should shoot me as they do aged horses.” 

Scott nods and smiles. 

“But, you know, this class is an attractive group, and full of 
promise. The question is, how many of them will learn to act?” 

Scott nods again and pushes the button for the elevator one 
more time. In the basement an electric motor drones into life. 

“I’ve been teaching for over fifty years and in that near eternity 
I have attempted to teach literally thousands of young people 
how to act. And I haven’t done too badly. I did well with you, 
for example.” 

“Thank you,” Scott says. 

“But if I chose to dwell on my overall success rate, I’d probably 
give up, so I don’t.” 

The elevator arrives and they enter it. 

“Acting is an art. And teaching acting is an art too, or it can 
be. Ultimately it’s a question of talent—of theirs meshing with 
mine. So time will tell. But I must say, it’s good to begin again!” 



ime here. 

l desk where Meisner is seated 
n Vincent takes,his place with 
re room. He takes a few coins 
irops them on the floor, 
na asks. 






27 


B (NJ) f THE OUCH 

>ped some coins.” 
you dropped some coins.” 
tpf&Yeah, I dropped some coins.” 

#'“Yeah, you dropped some coins.” 

“All right, now listen to me,” Meisner says interrupting the 
repetition. “Vince, I maintain that by this time you should have 
realized that she has good ears and told her so. It would have been 
something you said because something she did made you do it. 
And you, Anna, had the right by this time to observe that because 
he dropped some coins he’s careless with his money.” 

“That would be an assumption,” says Vincent defensively. 
“It would be an assumption which you could deny. ‘I am not 
careless with my money!’ Do you follow?” 

“Yes.” 

“All right. Use something new and begin again, slowly.” 
After a moment, Anna elbows Vincent in the back. 

“You poked me in the back!” 

“I poked you in the back.” 

“You poked me in the back.” 

“Yes, I poked you in the back.” 

“Yes, you poked me in the back.” 

“Yes,” she says, amused at his displeasure, “I poked you in the 
back.” 

“What’s funny?” he snaps. 

“What’s funny?” 

“What’s funny?” he repeats. 

“What’s funny?” 

“What's funny?” Vincent says with unnatural stress on the first 
word. Meisner interrupts them immediately. 

“No! That’s a reading! Until then it was very good, but ‘J What's 
funny?’ was a way of creating variety. I’ll show you something. 
There is a time when the verbal contact between you changes, 
and it is based on instinct. Instinct. I’ll show you what I mean by 
that. Imagine, Vince, that you walk into a department store with 
a friend of yours, and you say, ‘Do you see that tie? I want it!’ Or 
you go to a party and across the room you see a girl and you say 
to yourself, ‘I’m going to have her!’ That comes from your in¬ 
stincts. Do you follow? 



“Now, in this exercise there is a change in the words that is- ' 
dictated by your instinct. I’ll show you how it works.” He leans 
toward Vincent and says sotto voce, “Vince, whatever I ask you 
for, the answer is ‘No.’ ” Then, in full voice he says, “Can you 
lend me twenty dollars?” 

“Can I lend you twenty dollars?” 

“Can you lend me twenty dollars?” 

“No, I can’t lend you twenty dollars.” 

“You can’t lend me twenty dollars?” 

“I can’t lend you twenty dollars.” 

“You can’t?” 

“I can’t.” 

“You can’t?” 

“I can’t!” 

“You’re a big shit!” 

“I’m a big shit!” ■ ■ < , • 

“That’s what I said!” The class laughs, and when the laughter 
ends Meisner adds, “Now, that change was caused by instinct.” 

After a moment he peers at Anna, comically leering at her 
from behind his thick lenses. “Will you come to my house to¬ 
night?” 

“Will I come to your house tonight?” 

“Will you come to my house tonight?” 

“Will I come to your house tonight?” 

“Will you come to my house tonight?” 

“No, I will not come to your house tonight.” 

“You won’t come to my house tonight?” He gives her a wither¬ 
ing, scornful look. “You’re a professional virgin!” 

There is another-burst of laughter. 

“Now let’s talk about that. When is something instinctive 
caused in you? How does it happen?” 

“It lives in you,” Vincent says. “It hits you a certain way.” 

“That’s right. You wouldn’t lend me twenty dollars, so I called 
you a big shit. She said she wouldn’t come to my house in such 
a way that my instinct tells me that she’s a professional virgin. 
Now, that happens in an exercise, which changes the dialogue. 
The instinct changes the dialogue. Then it continues and you 



r wait until the instinct changes it again. Any questions here? 
f Ray?” • . . 

“What if your partner is doing nothing,” asks Ray, “and your 
instincts tell you that this is aggravating?” 

“Use it!” • 

“Then you can say, ‘But you’re not doing anything!’ ” 

“Or, ‘You’re aggravating me!’ ” 

“ ‘You’re aggravating me!’ So it’s really like there’s never noth¬ 
ing." ^ ■ A-I, • 

“There’s no such thing,” Meisner says, “there’s no such thing 
as nothing. There V no such thing as nothing: There 's no such thing as 
nothing. ” . 

“What about silence?” Sarah asks. 

“Listen, silence is a moment. A moment of silence is some¬ 
thing, too. Let me prove it to you. Ask me whether I think you 
have talent.” ' 

“Mr. Meisner, do you think I have talent?” 

His head cocks away from her and he maintains a complete 
silence. The class begins to laugh. 

“That was silent, wasn’t it?” Meisner asks when the laughter 
subsides. 

“Well, yes . . says Sarah, at a loss for words. 

“That’s the point, the ‘Well, yes . . .’ It’s the point because my 
silence was very expressive,” Meisner says.“Silence has a myriad 
of meanings. In the theater silence is an absence of words, but 
never an absence of meaning.” 

There is a slight pause. 

“Do you mean that I don’t have to look at my partner when 
we’re doing the repetition and just say, ‘You have a gray shirt on, 
you have a gray shirt on’?” asks Rose Marie. “If he looks bored 
I could say, ‘You look bored’? I could make a judgment?” 

“Of his behavior, yes. There comes a point when one of you 
has to pick up what the repetition is doing to you. I don’t care 
what it is. Are you bored with the repetition? Then that could 
be the change. Or maybe your partner sounds a little annoyed at 
you; from that fact could come the change ‘You’re angry at me.’ 
In other words, your instinct picks up the change in his behavior 



and the dialogue changes too. I’m talking about instinct. You 
walk into a store and see a dress. ‘That’s for me!’ That’s instinct. 
I say that if you take your time, the change in you, which is — 
I don’t like to say ‘automatic,’ I don’t Jike that word—which is 
spontaneous, will happen. That’s what you should work on now. 
Let your instincts dictate the changes, not just the repetition.” 


“We began by discussing instinct. Now let’s discuss where talent 
comes from. It is my belief that talent comes from instinct. What 
does that mean? Can anybody explain?” 

Rose Marie holds up her hand. “I think we all really have the 
same instincts, and if we allow ourselves to be simple and unclut¬ 
tered, then those instincts or talent will appear. If you allow 
yourself to be open and honest.” 

“Ah,” Meisner says, “but the tendency nowadayses to follow 
your instincts only when they are socially acceptable. We fear 
being branded as uncivilized for liking or disliking something. 
Think of the girl from Miss Finch’s School. She was taught to say 
only what was acceptable socially. A girl from Miss Finch’s 
School goes to see her friend in a play, and her real reaction is 
that the performance was terrible. Yet when she goes backstage 
she smiles and through gritted teeth says, ‘ Marvelous!’ ” 

The class laughs at Meisner’s accurate impersonation of a deb¬ 
utante from Westchester. 

“You can see the jaw tense to keep the real, instinctive remark 
from coming out. That’s not good for actors. Can you see where 
that controlling is the opposite of the spontaneous, deeply in¬ 
stinctive behavior we’re talking about?” 


Wendy and Jim, a pale blond pair in their early twenties, begin 
to perform the Word Repetition Game. After a few minutes, 
Meisner interrupts. 

“Wait a minute, both of you. Wendy, you’re being self- 
manipulative. Do you know what that means?” 

“Yeah, but I don’t know why you’re saying it.” 

“I’m saying it because you’re doing it. You’ve got control over 


31 


Jr Hi^I NCH AND THE OUCH 

Iwhat you’re saying, and I say he has to have the control. What 
you’re doing is self-manipulative. Do you understand?” 

“Doesn’t he have to take that control?” 

“What?” 

“You said I was controlling us. Isn’t he responsible for that 
too?” 

“His responsibility is to repeat, as is yours. You’re really work¬ 
ing from your head. You’re not getting this exercise because you 
think that you have to manipulate verbal responses, whereas all 
you really have to do is repeat what you get from him. If you 
repeat what you get from him, you won’t be at a loss for some¬ 
thing to say. Your head is figuring out what to say, figuring out 
what to do next. How do you get away from that?” 

“By not thinking about it. I understand that because I’m a 
dancer, and when I’m good I don’t think about my steps any 
more because I know how to do them. It just happens.” 

“It has to happen here too, you follow? Jim, you have some¬ 
thing of the same problem. Not as much, but something. How 
do you correct that?” 

“As you say, don’t think. Just try to take what’s there.” 

“Listen. I’d suggest going on with the word repetition, just 
working off each other, and the more brainless it is the chances 
are the better off you’ll be. It’s a question of repeating what you 
hear. Don’t make up anything; you’re better off saying, ‘I’m 
stuck, let’s quit.’ Then begin again from another angle. Thinking 
has no part in this process.” 

After a moment Meisner asks, “Wendy, how do you feel?” 

“I feel. . . See, I never thought that I thought a lot, but I guess 
I do. So I guess it’s good that I realize this before I get into 
trouble. It’s good. It’s easier not to think, I guess.” 

“Work from your instincts,” Meisner says. “That’s what we 
were talking about. Okay?” 


October 6 

“Joseph, you’re doing something that you have to throw away 
right now. You’re compounding the moments, see? If she said, 



32 . ' sATT 

‘You’ve got a cold,’ you’d answer, ‘Yes, I have a cold, I got wet. 
That’s two moments, one of which is an intellectual explanation 
of the first instead of simply repeating what you get from your 
partner. If she said, ‘Your jaw is tense,’ you d answer, Yes, my 
jaw is tense. I’m nervous. ’ Those are two moments. 

“Are you saying I should leave it as ‘Yes, my jaw is 

tense’?” - - > ; . 

“One moment, one note at a time. Do you understand? 

“Yes." . : '-V' 

“Also, you overdo the word repetition. You comment on some¬ 
thing you notice about her but if you get no answer, you repeat 
it as if it were necessary for her to respond to what you say 
instead of using her silence. I’ll show you what I mean. 

He leans over to Anna, who is seated near his right 
hand, and whispers, “Don’t answer me.” Then, fixing her with 
his gaze and pointing to her necklace, he asks, “Is that a gold 
chain?” - 

Anna regards him without moving and in silence. 

“Is that a gold chain?” Meisner repeats mechanically. He waits 
for her answer, which does not come. “You see, Joseph, that s 
what you did. You said the same thing twice. Now, 111 show you 
something.” • 

Again he looks at Anna. “Is that a gold chain?” he asks. Again 
she regards him silently, but this time Meisner waits for her 
response until, Out of exasperation, he shouts, “Don’t look at me 
as if I’m crazy!” 

Josephnods, and Meisner continues. “You should use her si¬ 
lence for a new moment instead of repeating it.” 

“The moment has changed?” 

“The moment has changed because of her silence. Do you get 
that?” 

“Yes.” 

“Ask me if we are going to have a class next Thursday. 

“Mr. Meisner, are we going to have a class next Thursday? 

He ignores Joseph’s question, staring coldly off into space. The 
silence becomes painful, and finally Joseph says ruefully, I guess 
we’re not.” 



THE PINCH AND THE OUCH 


33 


“Or,” Meisner says with a pointed smile, “ ‘Aren’t we on 
speaking terms?’” 

Joseph nods. 

“Did you get that?” 

“Yes, I understand.” 

“I thought you did.” 


“Listen, Philip, you have some kind of cockeyed idea that acting 
is an imitation of life.” 

His exercise interrupted, Philip, the stocky, blond, boyish 
young man, chews his lower lip nervously. Meisner speaks 
slowly and with great firmness. 

“You try to be logical, as in life. You try to be polite, as in life. 
May I say, as the world’s oldest living teacher, 1 Fuck polite!’ ” 
Meisner says passionately. “You have one thing to do, and that 
is to pick up the repetition from your partner. And if he sticks 
his tongue out, that’s not polite. That’s not grownup. It’s not the 
way people your age act. But you’ve got to do it!” 

“You mean go with it.” 

“Yes! And if your mother hits you, retaliate!” 

“I will I’ve got to be around people who aren’t so polite.” 

“You’ve got to be around people who follow their instincts.” 

“I know that’s my next step, to find a person who follows his 
instincts.” 

“No,” Meisner says, “it’s in you! They all have it. Can’t you see 
that?” He makes a sweeping gesture indicating the whole class. 
“Whatever your partner does, you imitate it—right, wrong, po¬ 
lite or whatever. I tell you this: you cannot be a gentleman and 
be an actor. And you’ve got the idea that you’re a gentle¬ 
man.” 

“Yes.” ' 

“Forget about it!” A- 

“I’ll try.” 

“Where did you get this delusion that you’re a logical gentle¬ 
man?” 

“People just kept saying, ‘You’re a gentleman, you’re a gen- 



34 


tleman,” and after a while I must have listened to them.” 

“Philip, do yourself a favor. Kick them in the ass!” 

“Today we’re going to talk about beginnings. I have an exercise 
that I’m going to demonstrate to you. It is basic and vital, and it 
may clarify something. John, stand up. I want to show you where 
you begin. There are two basic principles involved here, which 
you can write down if you wish.” 

He leaves the desk to stand beside John, who is a head taller 
than he,. 

“'Don't do anything unless something happens to make you do 
it. ’ That’s one of them. The second is: ‘ What you do doesn t de¬ 
pend on you; it depends on the other fellow. ’ John,” he asks, “how are 
you on learning a script? Are you jpretty good? You’re fast? 
Here’s your text: ‘Mr. Meisner.’ Can you learn that? Can I hear 
that?” 

“ ‘Mr. Meisner,”’ John says simply. 

“Not bad.” The class laughs. “Now, I said don’t do anything 
until something happens to make you do it, and I said that what 
you do doesn’t depend on you but on the other fellow, didn 1 1? 
Now, you’ve got a script. Do you remember it?” 

“Yes.”'- 

“What is it, please?” 

“ ‘Mr. Meisner.’ ” 

“Perfect. Would you mind turning around?” 

Sensing what is to come, the class begins to titter. 

“What are you laughing at? I haven’t done it yet! 

Then he reaches up and gives John’s back a big pinch. 

“ 'Mr. Meisner!’ ” John shouts, jumping away from him. There 
is laughter and scattered applause. 

“That,” Meisner says, “is the illustration of what I just told 
you. ‘Don’t do anything until something happens to make you do 
it. And what you do doesn’t depend upon you; it depends on the 
other fellow!’ Did I force that screech out of you?-’ 

“Yes, in a manner of speaking.” 

“That’s justification. Okay, John, sit down. You were very 



35 


k THE PINCH AND THE OUCH 

good. Now we go into more dangerous territory. Rose Marie, 
come here.” 

She rises and joins him in the center of the room. . 

“How are you on texts?” 

“Great.” 

“ ‘Mr. Meisner,’ ” 

“ ‘Mr. Meisner,’ that’s my text.” 

“That’s your text. Shall we rehearse it? What’s your text?” 

“ ‘Mr. Meisner,’ ” Rose Marie says. 

“And what’s the principle?” 

“Not to do or say anything until something happens to make 
you do it.” 

“Don’t do anything, never mind about saying, until something 
happens to make you do it! What’s the text?” 

‘“Mr. Meisner.’” 

“Good. Turn around with your back to me, please. Con¬ 
centrate on the text. Don’t do anything until something hap¬ 
pens. ... .” Casually he reaches around her shoulder and slips his 
hand into her blouse. 

“ 'Mr. MeisnerV ” she giggles, drawing away from his touch. 

“You see how true that acting is, how full emotionally,” 
Meisner says. “I didn’t know you were ticklish.” 

The classroom resounds with laughter. 

“Now, look. I’m talking and illustrating something which 
is basic, which is organic to the technique. What did you see 
here?” 

“I saw truthful responses,” says Joseph, the serious young man 
with the deep voice. 

“To what?” 

“To your grabbing or pinching them.” 

“In short, my pinch justified their ouch, isn’t that true?” 

“True.” 

“And their ouch was the direct result of my pinch?” 

“Yes.” 

“What’s the principle involved in this?” 

“Not to do anything until—” 

“Something happens. Didn’t something happen to him? Didn’t 



36 

something happen to her? Spontaneity is involved in this, right? 
What else?” . 

: “Truthfulness,” Joseph replies. “It is the basis of being truth¬ 
ful.” 

“Yes,” Meisner says, “it is.” 

I! 

“You know, in the early days of the Group Theatre, the actors 
used to do what they called ‘improvisations.’ ” 

Meisner leans back in a comfortable armchair angled before 
the unlit fireplace in his paneled office. The class was a long one, 
and outside a red sun is about to set. Scott Roberts, a large.leather 
briefcase across his knees, sits on the daybed against the wall. 

“These were general verbalizations of what we thought was an 
approximation of our situation in the play. We were retelling 
what we remembered of the story of the play using our own 
words. I came to the realization that this was all intellectual 
nonsense. A composer doesn’t write down what he thinks would 
be effective; he works from his heart. 

“I decided I wanted an exercise for actors where there is no 
intellectuality. I wanted to eliminate all that ‘head’ work, to take 
away all the mental manipulation and get to where the impulses 
come from. And 1 began with the premise that if I repeat what 
I hear you saying, my head is not working. I’m listening, and 
there is an absolute elimination of the brain. If you say, Your 
glasses are dirty,’ and I say, ‘My glasses are dirty,’ and you say, 
‘Yes, your glasses are dirty,’ there is no intellectuality in that. 

Meisner glances for a moment at the framed black-and-white 
photograph of Eleonora Duse which stands on his small mahog¬ 
any desk. 

“Then I came to the next stage. Let’s say I say to you, ‘Lend 
me ten dollars.’ And you say, ‘Lend you ten dollars?’ ‘Yes, lend 
me ten dollars.’ And that goes on for five or six times until—and 
this is vital—your refusal sets up an impulse in me which comes 
directly out of the repetition and it makes me say to you, ‘You’re 
a stinker!’ That’s repetition which leads to impulses. It is not 



37 


THE PINCH AND THE OUCH 

intellectual. It is emotional and impulsive, and gradually when 
the actors I train improvise, what they say—like what the com¬ 
poser writes—comes not from the head but truthfully from the 
impulses.” 

“I know,” Scott says. “But the problem is that on a superficial 
level all this repetitive back-and-forth can seem boring. Vincent, 
for example, the guy who’s Anna’s partner, told me before class 
that the repetition exercise drives him nuts.” 

“Ah, please,” Meisner says with a dismissive wave of his hand, 
“Vincent comes from California, for God’s sake, where he claims 
to have studied with one of the legion of teachers who claim to 
have studied with me! Look, I’ll tell you why the repetition 
exercise, in essence, is not boring: it plays on the source of all 
organic creativity, which is the inner impulses. I wish I could 
make that clear!” 

He pauses for a moment. “Of course, if I were a pianist and sat 
for an hour just making each finger move in a certain way, the 
onlooker could very well say, ‘That’s boring!’ And it would be 
—to the onlooker. But the practitioner is somebody who is learn¬ 
ing to funnel his instincts, not give performances. The mistake 
we made in the Group was that our early improvisations were 
performances of how we remembered the original play. 

“You know, a friend of mine who owns the house in which 
Joan Sutherland has an apartment says, ‘Sometimes she drives me 
crazy with the repetition of the scales, but then I hear the purity 
of the tones and all is forgiven.' I’m a very nonintellectual teacher 
of acting. My approach is based on bringing the actor back to his 
emotional impulses and to acting that is firmly rooted in the 
instinctive. It is based on the fact that all good acting comes from 
the heart, as it were, and that there’s no mentality in it.” 




The Knock on the Door 


Class Motto: “Repeat” 

—from a brass plaque on the. side of a steel-gray Puroi': 
water cooler, “Gift of the Class of 1971,” which.stands^ 
outside the door of Meisner's third-floor classroom 


m 


October 9 


“Let’s see now. I want to start something new today. Vince, go 
across the hall to the teachers’ room, where you will find a tele¬ 
phone book. Bring it in, presto, presto . ” 

Vince returns in a moment with a thick Manhattan telephone 
directory. He sits at the long table in the center of the room, the 


book open before him. 

“Last week, Vince, you met a beautiful girl at a party and she 
said, ‘I’m having a party next Saturday night, and if you want to 
come to it, my family is in Europe, so you can stay all night. Do 
you like that?” 

“Yes.” 

“Good. Now, you wrote her name and address down on a slip 


a^mb awpuj-lost it. Fortunately, you remember her name. 

’"^Smith^ind she lives in Manhattan on the East Side in 
^e3§S.ef^nties. Now, do you have a good reason to look up 

||sjH : ’iwant.to spend the night.” 
jlerm’e call your attention to something. I deliberately made 
|Uus§difficult. \ Smith in Manhattan? There are fourteen pages of 
pmiths in Manhattan! Another difficulty is the reason why you 
shave to find her, or else . . .” 
fill’ll spend Saturday night alone.” 

“That’s difficult. Anna, give him a little time to get into it and 
then play the Word Repetition Game just as you’ve been doing 
it.” ' ' • 


Vincent begins to search the Smith section of the Manhattan 
telephone directory. He quickly becomes absorbed in the task. 
Then Anna says quietly, “Looking for something?” “I’m looking 
for something,” he responds, and the repetition exercise begins. 
It is essentially unchanged, except that Vince’s attention is fixed 
on solving the problem of locating K. Z. Smith, a task made more 
difficult ly Anna’s insistent pursuit of playing the word game. 
The result is that the dialogue, is more focused, and there are 
more impulsive shifts in its direction, more surprises. 

“That’s pretty good,” Meisner'says after a few minutes. “I 
invented something for you to do with that telephone book. That 
story about the girl with the obliging parents is sheer invention, 
but finding her has a virtue. It is difficult to do. It takes all your 
concentration, and out of that some emotion will come.” He 
pauses for a moment. “We’re moving forward. Putting the repeti¬ 
tion exercise together with an independent activity is a new step. 
I want all of you to choose something to do which is above 
all difficult, if not almost impossible. This is very important. You 
have to have a reason why you want to do it. You must have a 
reason why you want to do it, because that’s the source of your 
concentration and eventually of your emotion, which comes by 
itself.” 

Meisner pauses to adjust the microphone attached to his eye¬ 
glasses. “Let’s talk about this. To be inventive, to have ideas, is 
an organic part of being talented. You’re all very imaginative, 



aren’t you? The answer is ‘Positively.’ Go to Woolworth’sTB |rp 
a plate for ten cents and break it. Steal your brother’s glue add; 
put that plate together as though it had never been broken. Now, 
consider: why should you do that?” •'I 

“Perhaps you will get into a lot of rroubJe if it’s broken,” says 
Rose Marie. 


: “That has validity. Suppose it’s the" best plate in a fabulous 
collection that your mother owns.” 

“And it has great sentimental value for her,”, says Rose Marie. 

“And her anger means a big headache for you. Would that 
propel you? Remember this; the independent activity must be 
difficult; truly difficult, and the reason why you do it has to have 
a consuming reality for you.” 


October 13 

“Let’s go very slowly,” Meisner says to Joseph and Beth, the 
young woman with the luxurious hair. “This is so vital; it’s at the 
core of the way you handle yourself. Joseph, do what you have 
chosen to do. Beth, give him plenty of time to get immersed in 
what he’s doing. Let’s not rush. Take your time. Make a mistake. 
I don’t care—just make the first step.” 

“May I ask you a question?” asks Beth.' “During this exercise 
when I come in and Joseph has a task, I feel that I don’t want to 
keep interrupting because he’s concentrating. If it were me, I’d 
just leave.” 

“No, it’s not you in real life,” Meisner says. “It’s you practicing 
an exercise.” 

“That’s what I mean. My conflict . . . There’s a tension—” 

“Then wait!” 

“Wait for something to happen?” 

“Yes. Where could it come from?” 

“Something that he does . . . ?” 

“Something that he does. Do you follow? Otherwise what 
you’re saying is that acting is talking, and what I’m saying is 
don’t do anything until something happens to make you do it. 




41 


fcrciCON THE DOOR 

m 



jEDther\vise you will create an untruthful thing. Let me try to 
■p 'ake this clearer.” 

fp^Meisner pauses to light a cigarette. “Now, wait. I said we’re 
! f going to go slowly.” He regards Joseph. “What are you going to 
■ ; do?” • 

“You want an explanation of my independent activity? My 
nephew is sick and is going into the hospital. I’m making a 
cartoon for him to try to explain to him that he shouldn’t be 
afraid.” ■■ •!.. 

“Fine. Do that as if your life depended on it. When I knock, 
you and I will begin the word repetition.” 

Joseph carefully sharpens a drawing pencil on a small sheet of 
sandpaper and begins to work on his cartoon. When Meisner sees 
that Joseph is engrossed, he knocks on. his desk top. 

“You want my attention?” Joseph asks, looking up from his 
work. 

“But you have to continue to do that!” Meisner exclaims, refer¬ 
ring to the independent activity. 

. “I know,” says Joseph. 

“So do it!” 

Joseph hunches over his work. Meisner regards him intently. 
“What are you doing?” 

“What am I doing?” Joseph repeats, looking over at him. 

“Why did you look over at me?” 

“Why, to see iwhat you were doing.” 

He begins to draw again. A minute passes. Meisner, his curios¬ 
ity aroused, stands up and walks slowly to the table where Joseph 
works. “You’re busy?” he asks casually. 

: ' “I’m busy.” 

“You’re busy.” 

“I’m busy.” 

There is another pause. Meisner edges another step closer to 
Joseph. “You’re very busy,” he says admiringly. 

“I’m very busy,” Joseph admits. 

“Busy.” 

“Yeah, busy.” 

“Yeah.” • 



42 


“Yeah.” 

Again there is a moment of silence; then Meisner takes a step 
that brings him looming over the seated Joseph. “I’m busy too,” 
he announces. 

“Are you?” says Joseph, hunching over his drawing board. 

“Yeah, I’m very busy,” Meisner replies, leaning over Joseph’s 
shoulder. 

“You’re very busy,” Joseph says, and then in exasperation he 
stands up and says, “You know, you’re preventing me from doing 
this!” 

“That’s what I’m busy at!” Meisner exclaims proudly, and the 
class laughs. “Now, what point am I making?” 

“To really do what you’re doing,” Joseph says. “You’re busy 
bothering me and I have to do this activity and respond to you 
too.” 

“Am I adjusting to you?” 

“I think you are. You’re working off me, if that s what you 
mean.” 

“Falsely or truthfully?” 

“I’d say truthfully.” 

“What did I say to Sarah last week? What did I say to you, 
Sarah?”. 

“A moment of silence isn’t nothing,” she replies. It s a mo¬ 
ment as well.” 

“It means something, right? Acting is not talking. It is living 
off the other fellow. What’s that mean?” 

“Acting isn’t chatter,” Beth says; “it’s responding truthfully to 
the other person.” • 

“That’s right. Joseph, sum this up for me.” 

“The meaning is in the behavior. You don’t do anything until 
that behavior makes you do something.” 

“And then you do it in what way?” 

“You do it truthfully and fully. You really do it.” 

“You try!” 

“You do what it makes you do.” 

“You do what it makes you do. Now, Joseph, you had a certain 
merit in what you were doing, in the sense that your independent 
activity was specific and it had some kind of meaning to you. The 



gg'M 

; ■ THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR 


43 


error here, which you will gradually overcome, is to think that 
you have to keep on talking. What’s the opposite of that?” 
“The opposite of talking?” Joseph asks. “Silence.” 

“Silence. Until something happens to make you do something /” 


October 17 

Bruce, a tall man in his late thirties with thinning gray hair, has 
been casually moving bits and pieces of a wooden puzzle in and 
out of a cardboard box. N^leisner motions for Lila, a student new 
to the class, to sit down and then interrupts the exercise. 

“Whenever you do what you have to do, which is that puzzle, 
and let whatever comes from your partner come as an accident 
which you repeat, this exercise works for you. But while she was 
up there you were more conscious of her than you were absorbed 
in solving the puzzle.” 

“The reason was that this independent activity didn’t work for 
me.” 

“Why were you doing it?” 

“There was a million dollars at stake. If I put this puzzle 
together I would get a million dollars.” 

“Don’t you think that’s a little exaggerated?” 

“Maybe. I wanted to see if money would make it any more real 
for me.” 

“What about a thousand dollars?” Meisner asks. “That doesn t 
mean anything?” 

“I thought a million was better.” 

“Then ten million is ten times better still, but that’s not the 
point I want to make. I’m having a tough time with you, Bruce, 
and one of the reasons is because you are audience-conscious. 
What makes you audience-conscious? I can understand Milton 
Berle being audience-conscious, but what makes you audience 
conscious? Stanislavsky, no slouch, had a phrase which he called 
‘public solitude.’ He said that when you’re alone in your room 
and nobody’s watching you—you’re just standing in front of the 
mirror combing your hair—the relaxation, the completeness 
with which you do it is poetic. He calls this relaxed behavior on 


* 




the stage ‘public solitude.’ On the stage ‘public solitude’ is what 
we want. You have only one element to give up to get to the area 
where your real acting personality is, and that is yourself.” 

“That has to do with the motive for my independent activity, 
doesn’t it?” 

“The silly million dollars?” 

“It didn’t work.” 

“It never will. It’s not imaginative to say a million dollars. It’s 
exaggerated and false. What would honestly work for you?” 

“A hundred dollars,” Bruce says simply. 

“So why be theatrical? And theatrical in a false way? You see, 
only you know what’s truthful for you. A couple of years ago I 
was hit by a goddamned truck, and now there’s a lawsuit going 
on. People say to me, ‘You’re going to get three million dollars.’ 
Do you know what my reaction is? I laugh. It’s ridiculous. But 
when somebody says, ‘You might get a hundred thousand dol¬ 
lars,’ I say, ‘Really?’ That I can believe; otherwise it’s ridiculous.” 

Meisner takes a puff on his cigarette. “Since I don’t walk well 
I take taxis frequently. Do you know who was driving my taxi 
today? Mrs. Ronald Reagan /” 

Someone chuckles quietly. 

“Did you get it? Joseph, what are you laughing at?” 

“That’s ridiculous,” Joseph says. 

“Of course. But if I’d said, ‘Her son, the ex-ballet dancer—’ ” 

The class laughs. 

Truth and public solitude. Believe me, Bruce, you should 
have ‘Public Solitude’ engraved on your stationery, because 
that’s what you need. Not public exhibitionism, but public soli¬ 
tude. When you are at home, when you have a job to do, you do 
it. You comb your hair, and you don’t watch to make sure your 
pinky’s out; You exhaust me. Have a seat.” 


October 20 

Wendy holds up her hand. “I feel a little unclear about the 
independent activity. I mean, I find it very difficult to do this. 



45 


THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR 


It could be as simple as doing the alphabet backwards, right?” 

“But there would be no point to it.” 

“If there’s a reason, there will be a point to it.” 

“What’s the reason?” Meisner asks and waits for her response. 

“I can’t think of anything except—” 

“That’s right, you can’t. You'd have to go to Bellevue to get a 
reason. Everything in acting is a kind of heightened, intensified 
reality—but it’s based on justified reality. To recite the alphabet 
backwards is not reality. You’d have to invent some weird reason 
to justify it, and I don’t know what that could be.” 

Wendy nods in agreement. 

“If you’re a good caricaturist like, to take a minor one, that 
fellow who does all those theatrical caricatures for the Sunday 
Times —” 

“A1 Hirschfeld,” Wendy says. 

. “A1 Hirschfeld, yeah. You always recognize the real source of 
his caricatures. What I’m saying is that everything is based on 
life, on reality. My mind goes back to Ed Wynn, who was Keenan 
Wynn’s father and a truly great clown. He had an act which 
consisted, among other things, of inventions. He was trying to 
sell the audience a very complicated machine that was designed 
to let you eat watermelon without getting your ears wet. Now 
that’s ridiculous, right? But the feeling of desperation, the feeling 
of fear that he wouldn’t succeed made it first-class clowning.” 

Meisner pauses. The moment is clearly meaningful to him. “I 
brought this up because of what you said about how difficult it 
would be reciting the alphabet backwards. It would be even more 
difficult to walk from here to L.A. on your hands, but it would 
. also be crazy, which means abnormal. The greatest piece of act- 
% ing or music or sculpture or what-have-you always has its roots 
in the truth of human emotion. Beethoven was a bastard in real 
f life, you know. He was a real bastard. But his music is pure and 
E based in his real feeling. That is why he was great. Not because 
k he fired his servant, which he did, because a sock was missing out 
§ of the laundry. What I’m saying is that the truth of ourselves is 
|i the root of our acting.” 



46 


“I’m going to show you a brand-new thing. Years ago, before you 
were born, there was a show called Florodora, and there was a 
song in it entitled ‘Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its 
Own.’ Now, I changed,that a bit to say, ‘Every Little Moment Has 
a Meaning All Its Own.’ You sort of know that already, don’t 
you? All right, now. A knock ... a knock has a meaning. Follow 
this carefully. A knock has a meaning. John, go outside and knock 
—truthfully—and then wait ten seconds and knock a second time 
with a second meaning. Then knock a third time.” 

“Three different meanings?” 

“Right. Ralph, you tell me what each knock means to you.” 

There is a quiet rap on the door. 

“Is anybody there?” Ralph says. 

“No, it was timid. Call it timid.” 

Then there is an emphatic, rapid knock. • 

“Nervous,” Ralph says. “He sounds nervous.” 

“All right.” 

Finally there is a huge, booming knock. 

“Angry, really loud—” 

“All right, call him in.” 

John reappears. 

“John—everybody—knock so that it has some resemblance to 
life. Don’t knock theatrically. Your last knock was on the verge 
of being theatrical. Do you understand?” 

John nods his head. 

“Now here’s the catch. The first moment of the exercise is the 
knock. The exercise begins with the knock. The second moment 
is the opening of the door, and the third moment is your interpre¬ 
tation of the knock. The third moment is the meaning the knock 
has for you, verbalized by you as you open the door. Right? Then 
you go back to what you’re doing. Do whatever the third moment 
permits you to do and then go back to your independent activity 
and let the exercise continue.” 

Ralph seems puzzled. 

“Let’s go over the knocking,” Meisner says. “After the first 
two, tell me what they mean to you. After the third one, open the 



47 


?is THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR 

door. And use—verbally—what the third knock meant to you. 
Then go back to your independent activity and the exercise. Any 
: questions?” ' 

“I understand the order of it,” Ralph says, “but if you were 
doing the activity and didn’t want to be interrupted—” 

“Then don’t interrupt—” 

“No, you’re doing the activity and you have to open the door, 
right?” 

; “No!” Meisner exclaims. 

“Okay, that makes it clear.” 

“No! You understand?” 

“Yeah—” 

“No! You understand?” 

“I understand. Yes.” 

“Yes? Tell me why.” 

“‘You don’t do something until—’ 

“Okay. You understand.” 


“Lila, the thing that we have to correct here is to take away the 
logic, because the repetition will induce real emotion and the 
logic stays mental. Do you understand that?” 

“Yes,” Lila says. A hennaed blond in her late forties, she is the 
oldest student in the class. 

“Now, look. You’ve had plenty of experience, and when you 
picked up a script in the past, I imagine, your tendency was to 
read it according to what you thought was the right feeling or 
mood—call it what you will. Now I’m pulling you away from 
that habit and I’m saying a simple thing. Be foolish but be repeti¬ 
tive. Keep up the repetition until something happens to you, 
something that will come right out of you. Right?” 

“Right.” 

“But to ask your partner questions continuously, as you did, 
is using your head, and what I’m trying to do is get you out of 
your head. Do you follow?” 

“Get me out of my head,” Lila says. 

“Into what?” 

“My emotional life.” 



“Point to it.” '1 

Lila points at her heart. Fv 

“ I hat’s right. That’s my first step in getting you away from 
indicating. Repeat to me what I just told you.” 

“You’re trying to get me away from using my logic to using 
my . . 

“Your impulses—” < 

“My impulses, my instincts. Gee, if I could only do that!” 

“If you try to do it for two minutes today, you’ll do it for four 
minutes next time. Do you follow?” ' 1 

“Right. I’ll try.” 

“Of course you will. Repeat. Repeat.” 


“What was your difficulty, John, do yon know?” 

“I felt like, just get through it. She was very emotional and I 
didn’t want to make it worse so I started saying to myself, ‘Get 
away.’ ” 

“Isn’t that in your head?” 

“Yes, exactly.” / 

“Isn’t that where you’ve been doing most of your acting-out 
of a mental desire to keep the exercise going in a helpful way?” 

“Yes.” 

“Is that good or bad for your acting?” 

“Bad, very bad.” 

“That’s stock-company stuff, what you’re doing. You’re writ¬ 
ing a logical text. The opposite of that is to work off her. Why 
did you do it?” - 

“In my past it’s usually not trusting directors. It’s just standing 
outside of myself whenever I got cast in something and feeling 
that this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, so I keep my 
sense of what’s going on outside the work.” 

“Are you saying that I don’t know what I’m talking about?” 

“God, no! I’m paying too much for this to walk away with that 
attitude.” 

“Then why don’t you do what I tell you?” 

“Well, I’d like to. I just don’t know if it’s too ingrained a habit.” 

“Well, next time you’ll have the independent activity. Make it 



something which is quite difficult and quite meaningful, and 
don’t open your mouth unless you repeat. And if you are doing 
an experiment on cancer and your partner says, ‘I feel like having 
some spaghetti,’ you’ve got to repeat it! You’re quite right, I 
suppose, when you say that some directors don’t know what the 
hell they’re talking about, but you’ve got to trust your instincts 
and not your head. The playwright gives you what to say. Your 
job as an actor is to fill the role with life. That’s the point of this 
exercise. I’ve been wary of your intelligence right from the be¬ 
ginning. I spotted that you worked up here,” Meisner says, point¬ 
ing to his head. “I can fix it, but you’ve got to help me. What do 
I mean when I say you’re doing the cancer experiment and she 
comes in and says, ‘I love spaghetti’?” 

“Whatever she does, work off it.” 

“Repeat! Repeat!” 

“Repeat!” 


October 27 

“Now, what about this independent activity?” Meisner asks. 
“What are some of its characteristics?” 

“It has to be urgent, truthful and difficult to do,” says Vincent. 

“For the moment I would concentrate on the difficulty,” 
Meisner says. “What else?” 

John raises his hand. “You brought up the example from Stan¬ 
islavsky, what he said about ‘public solitude,’ and you said that 
if you really involved yourself in the activity—just as if you re at 
home combing your hair in the mirror—it would be poetic if you 
were totally involved in it.” 

“ ‘Public solitude.’ What else?” 

Sarah leans forward in her seat. “That the activity and the 
reason you choose to do it can’t be too exaggerated or too far 
fetched. It has to be something realistic, not like Mrs. Ronald 
Reagan driving a taxi.” 

“Because she’s a terrible driver!” Meisner exclaims, and the 
class laughs. “What else? What did I say was the essence of the 
independent activity? The most important element in it?” 



“The reason why, ’’John says, “the specific reason you’re dding! 

it ” ■ : ■ ®li 

■ . . .. . - ■**;$ 

That s important , but it’s not the most important element 

“The difficulty?” John asks. 

“Yes, the difficulty.” 

“It strengthens your concentration,” Sarah adds. 

“Indeed it does,” Meisner says. “That’s common sense.” He 
pauses for a moment before asking, “How many of you have 
some kind of reasonably familiar knowledge of another creative 
art?” Bruce raises his hand. “You do? Music?” 

“Singing,” Bruce says, “but I’m not an accomplished musi¬ 
cian.” 

“Suppose you wanted to be. What’s the first thing you have to 
know essentially, besides knowing you have a good voice? What 
do you have to know if you want to play the Emperor Concerto 
with the Philharmonic?” Bruce has no answer. “Anybody?” 
Meisner asks. 

“You have to know the music,” Vince suggests. 

“Of course.” 

“You have to open the piano,” Wendy says. 

“No! To become an accomplished musician you have to realize 
that it takes twenty years to be a master at it! A master /” Meisner’s 
use of the word is thrilling. He pauses before adding, “And the 
same is true of acting.” The students regard him soberly. “Well, 
does anybody want to say anything?” After a moment he adds, 

“I do. Why do you think this is vital? Why should you be doing 
that independent activity? Why did I choose to have you do it? 
Anna?” 

“Because you learn to use your instincts based on what some¬ 
body else does to you,” she says. 

“As opposed to what you have to achieve by yourself. What 
else?” 

“It helps us in our concentration because it takes us out of the 
classroom,” Anna continues. “We’re doing something that we 
have to do which is unrelated to anybody else, and it doesn’t 
matter where we are. We could be at home or on the street or 
even on stage—it’s of its own world. Also, it’s good to have some¬ 
thing else going on in the exercise, bouncing off somebody else.” 



jKJJ y That’s very hard,” Anna says. 
hA “What?” Meisner asks in surprise, 
r “I think that’s very hard,” Anna says in a firm but quiet voice. 

“Time,” Meisner says. “Give yourself time. In only nineteen 
years and eleven months you’ll be amazed at how simple it all 
was.” The class laughs. 


“It seems to be quiet here today. Nobody seems to want to be 
dramatic, but that’s all right, provided we follow the basic rules.” 

Meisner has just interrupted a repetition exercise between 
Ralph, whom Wendy described on the first day of class as stocky, 
burly and stooped—he was a wrestler in high school—and Dave, 
a dark, slightly imperious young man who was a first-rate colle¬ 
giate swimmer and who currently teaches the sport in a New 
Jersey health club. 

“Now, for the most part, this was spotty. The weakness, in it 
was the way you kept letting it drop all the time. In terms of 
continuity, the contact between you broke too often. You let it 
stop. When the thing logically seemed to end; you let it. ‘Can I 
help you?’ ‘No, you can’t help me.’ Period. ‘Can I pick that up?’ 
‘No, you can’t pick that up.’ Finished. I didn’t mind because 
basically, like the others today, it was relaxed, easy and unforced. 
These are all significant values, but the continuity was missing.” 

“I understand that,” Dave says defensively, “but I’m uncom¬ 
fortable with its application to what I was doing. I didn’t want 
to force it or push it—just to let it happen,” 

.< “You were absolutely right.” 

: “In terms of the repetition—” 

“It was up to Ralph,” Meisner adds. ; 

“That’s right,” Dave agrees and begins to gather up the deck 
of playing cards scattered over the table. His independent activ¬ 
ity was to make a house of cards. 

“I’m sorry,” Ralph says, “It seems that I was waiting for some¬ 
thing to happen, and when it didn’t happen I—” > A 

Meisner interrupts. “My dear fellow, I have illustrated that 
there is no such thing as nothing, right? And I have also illus- 



52 

trated that what you do doesn’t depend on you, it depends on the 
other fellow. He was concentrating very intently. You could 
have noted that, but you let it slide without comment. Let me tell 
you something. I am, in a way, delighted with what I have seen 
so far today because it represents an understanding of the prob¬ 
lem on its smoothest, least excited level. I like it! It’s like a vaca¬ 
tion! And the reason you behaved as you did was valuable. It 
wasn’t producing any cliches; it was true.” 

He regards Ralph intently for a moment and then asks, “Are 
you afraid of him?” • 

“Yeah,” Ralph says quietly, “sometimes.” 

“You should use that. It will do something for him and for you. 
Why are you afraid of him?” 

“He’s a big guy, he’s very willful, very tempestuous, and I feel 
I have to get on his good side.” 

“That’s not theatrical,” Meisner replies. “It’s bad for you, and 
it’s unfair to him. You’re putting him in the position of having 
a hundred dollars in his pocket,,and all he is allowed to buy is 
jelly beans. Do you understand that?” Ralph nods. “But in a real 
way, I liked what you did. There was progress in it. There was 
knowledge in it. The thing that’s going to bring it to a different 
level has yet to come. The reason behind the knock, the reason 
why you come in and engage him in human conversation—you 
follow?—-has yet to come.” 

The exercise between Bruce and Lila proves tedious and painful 
to watch. Bruce has chosen to play the harmonica as his indepen¬ 
dent activity, but he does so for no compelling reason; it is merely 
unskilled noodling. Lila knocks timidly on the door and enters 
when Bruce opens it for her. Rose Marie, who is sitting in the 
front row next to Meisner’s desk, gasps. Lila has chosen to cos¬ 
tume herself in a flaming-red woolen bathrobe with matching 
slippers. She is affecting a generalized emotional state. On seeing 
her, Bruce says, “I thought you’d never get here.’ 1 

Meisner is visibly distressed, and after a few minutes removes 
his glasses and covers his eyes with his hands, his head bent over 
his desk. In another minute, he interrupts the exercise. 



THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR 


53 


“There is so much to talk about here,” he says, lifting his head 
and repositioning his glasses. “First of all, Lila, you are playing 
a part, the part of some unhappy woman.” 

“True,” Lila says, sitting beside Bruce on the bed. 

“Where did you get that red—that costume?” 

“The robe? It was given to me years ago.” 

“You brought it in because it fit the part?” Meisner asks. 

“Maybe. I didn’t think of it that way, but that could be behind 
it and I didn’t realize it.” 

“What did you wear when you came to class?” 

“Black sweater and pants.” 

“That’s what you should have done the exercise in.” 

“Right,” Lila says simply. 

“In other words, if you don’t give up acting out your cliches, 
I can’t help you to learn how to act. I’m trying to get you to do 
an exercise, not to play a part.” 

“I understand. I knew I was way off base—” 

“No talking!” Meisner exclaims, and the extent of his distress 
is evident in the sharpness of his tone. “Yes, you were way off 
base. You were way off base. You were like somebody—I’ll say 
this and then won’t say any more—you were like somebody 
who’s been playing the piano for years by ear, who decides to 
study the instrument and finds a teacher—this is not meant un¬ 
kindly—who says; ‘Okay, learn to do that.’ ” Meisner holds his 
right hand before him as if he were seated at the keyboard of a 
piano. “ ‘Learn to raise a finger without tensing and then drop 
it. Then learn to raise another.’ And he takes you back to the 
absolute beginning of learning how to play. And if I were that 
teacher, I wouldn’t say to you that when you come to take your 
first lesson you should be sure to dress like Wanda Landowska, 
a great harpsichordist who’s been dead for about forty years! 
Wear gold lam6 with a train thirty feet long! I don’t tell you to 
dress for the exercise. If you’ve got slacks on, that’s what you do 
it in!” 

“Right.” 

“Now, you,” Meisner says, looking at Bruce. “An independent 
activity has to have two things. It must be difficult and there must 
be a compelling reason why you are doing it. If you had picked 



a piece of music you had never played before in your life, that y 
unfamiliarity would be part of the difficulty in learning how to 
play it. You follow?” 

“Yeah.” 

“I say, ‘You follow?’ and you say, ‘Yeah!’ ” 

“I can’t play a Chopin etude on this harmonica because I don’t 
know how it goes in my head,” Bruce says. 

“Then pick a piece that fits that instrument, one you know but 
have never played, and practice it with all the difficulties that 
involves. I don’t care if you choose to learn ‘Deutschland iiber alles, ’ 
as long as you learn to play it like a virtuoso! And the next thing 
is, why is it absolutely imperative that you learn to play ‘Deutsch¬ 
land iiber alles' on the harmonica? If you decide why, you are 
exercising your imagination. If it is difficult, it will intensify your 
concentration. When something is difficult to do, it forces you to 
use your concentration. Have I made myself clear?” 

Bruce nods, and Meisner shifts his gaze back to Lila. He is 
profoundly disturbed. , 

“God almighty, woman, stop acting! I can’t stand it! Give the 
problems here your attention, your concentration and your time. 
Don’t behave as if acting were something that any amateur can 
turn on! It’s not true! I can understand why, after a good many 
years of acting, it’s hard for you to throw off your habits. I can 
understand where you got the idea to dress for the part. But it’s 
nonsense!” 

*‘T ~__>> 

1 agree. 

“All right, you agree.. You both are making me be very sharp 
and determined because you don't put enough work into what you're 
doing! And don’t tell me that you do! I’m a past master at knowing 
what has been thought out! I will not let you take this any more 
lightly than I do! Now, I beg you, work the way a real actor 
works, bring in the result of your efforts, and I will be the first 
to recognize it. But don’t throw something at me as if I were an 
amateur that didn’t know the difference! I repeat. Lila, don’t act. 
Bruce, an independent activity has to be difficult because that 
strengthens your concentration, and it has to be justified because 
everything must have a reason for being. I don’t care if it’s only 
because there’s a part you want to play and in order to play it you 




ffiave to learn to play, that German song like a master! Have I made 
‘‘myself clear?” 

0 : “Yes, extremely,” Lila says. 

“Well, okay, my friends,” Meisner says. The episode has 
drained him, and his voice, though amplified, is no more than a 
whisper. “I have all the sympathy that you need, but please give 
me back a percentage of what I give you instead of kicking me 
in the ass and thinking you’re going to get away with it. I won’t 
have it. This country is full of actors who have been trained 
beautifully—by me! But they worked! I say, ‘Don’t act, don’t 
fake, don’t pretend—work!’ That will train your concentration, 
your actor’s faith and, maybe, your emotion. Then you can hold 
up your head and say you’re learning how to act, and I can hold 
up-mine and say I'm teaching you.” - 

li 

“Oh my God, that Lila! After a scene like that I feel so dis¬ 
couraged and old!” 

Meisner unlocks the door of his office. “It’s brutal, you know, 
on me as well as on them. But they provoked me and I couldn’t 
help myself. It’s not something to be proud of, but scenes like this 
do happen and they are nothing to be ashamed of either. Besides, 
I’m too old to worry about it.” 

He enters and Scott Roberts follows. “Sandy,” he says, “I got 
the job. They asked me to direct the Cocteau play next season at 
Circle Rep.” 

“That’s terrific,” Meisner says. “I’m proud of you.” 

“I hope you’ll come to see it,” Scott says. 

“Yes,” Meisner says, “if I’m still alive—and that’s a big ‘if_ 

I’ll come to see it.” 

“Good. I just wanted you to know. I’ll see you on Monday.” 

“Good-night,” Meisner says. 

“You know,” Meisner says, picking up his black wool coat with 
a mink collar from the office daybed, “twenty or more years ago, 
Lila was a star—musical comedies mostly, but (light straight 
plays, too. She was beautiful and she could belt out a song. Scott 


56 ; 

tells me she does television commercials now. I wouldn’t know; 
I don’t see well enough to watch television anymore.” 

He turns off the light and locks the office door. “Iwas surprised 
and touched when she called me last spring and asked to become 
a student. It must be very humbling to return to square one. She 
realized, she said, that if she wanted to go on working in the 
theater, she would have to grow, to deepen herself as an actress. 
And she’s right, I think. Well, we’ll see. Maybe after a class like 
this she’ll quit.” 

Meisner walks slowly to the elevator. “I am heartened, though, 
by the progress of most of the others. Do you remember the 
exercise Joseph did with me several classes ago? ‘You re busy. 
‘Yes, I’m busy.’ Simple, unforced and clear. He held his own. 
John, and also Anna, strike me as very talented. Well, we’ll see. 
Right now, I’m delighted to go home. After a day like this, I need 
a good, stiff drink!” 


Beyond Repetition 




student: I’m getting the feeling: Don’t think—do! 
meisner: That’s a very good feeling to have. That’s an actor 
thinking. How does an actor think? He doesn’t think—he 
does. 

student: Right. 

meisner: That’s a good feeling. 


October 31 


“Listen, everybody. Next time, the person who comes in has to 
have a reason for coming in. And the reason has to be simple and 
specific and not death-defying in its urgency. In other words, 
come in for a can of soup, not because your brother is pinned 
under a truck on the street and they can’t get him out. Suppose 
you’re having a party and your neighbor, your partner, has a rare 
collection of Sinatra. So you want to borrow it. But no more 
dramatic than that. It gives you a reason for knocking at the door 
and then you’ll forget it anyway. You’re making a spaghetti sauce 
and you have no oregano. See?” 

“So that influences the knock,” says Ray. “The knock isn’t 
arbitrary, right?” 


* 


“The knock is just as it is, one knock. But if you come in for -1 
a pinch of oregano, what the hell kind of knock does that indi- 
cate?” '! 


John raises his hand. * _• : ;3 

“I have a question. When I was outside, before knocking on --|j 
the door I made up a little story for myself because you said | 
that the person who came in should have something he needs ;| 
from the partner. About halfway through I was going to bring : ;j 
it into the exercise, but I didn’t because I was unsure if you y 
wanted it brought up or if you just wanted it to root us. A 

“Just to root you. Never bring it up, because the script will 
bring it up anyway. Hamlet doesn’t keep secret what’s making 
him feel so lousy. You follow?” 


November 3 


“The question for today is what, if anything, are you getting 
from this procedure? What, and in what way, if any, are you 
being helped by this process? Based on the fact that none of you 
are kids and all of you have had experience, what’s been going 


on with you in this class? 

Rose Marie raises her hand. “What I am trying to concentrate 
on is forgetting everything I’ve done before and just listening to 
what’s going on and not applying it to anything else. I’m a little 
confused, but that’s okay.’ 

“Why are you confused?” 

“Because I don’t know how I’m going to listen and answer 
truthfully, moment to moment, when I get a script. 

“That’s the way you are going to begin with a script. Be patient, 
you’ll soon see. Who else has something to say? Curiously enough 
—just a minute, Lila—for a class who has had considerable expe¬ 
rience, there are not many problems involved. Lila, what s your 


question?” , . 

“I had no question. I thought I would try to answer what this 

class means to me so far.” 



ppfs?CFhe answer to what it means to you is one word.” 
§JJ:“Truth?” 

||fc “Reality. The truth of your instincts is the root of your founda- 
tion. Right?” 

& “Right.” 

“You see, you’ve all had experience. That’s not only my prob- 
;■ lem, it’s your problem, too. Ray?” 

f “I was going to say in answer to your question about what this 
p class means is that it seems to me that usually when I have acted 
v well, it has been by accident. And finding a way to act well on 
a regular basis is maybe what this class is doing for me, I think.” 
r} “That’s great.” 

:f “The other way,” Ray adds, “the way that Lee Strasberg and 
the Actors Studio people use, seems to do the opposite. They 
make you go inside, and you can get stuck in there/’ 

“That’s right. I told Lee that when he was alive. I said to him, 
‘You introvert the already introverted. All actors,’ I said, ‘like all 
p artists,, are introverted because they live on what’s going on in 
their instincts, and to attempt to make that conscious is to con¬ 
fuse the actor.’ Needless to say, he didn’t pay any attention to me, 
but that’s the reason I’m a better teacher than he was.” 

“Listen, Philip, how do you feel?” 

“Up-tight,” the fair-haired young man replies instantly. Then 
| he stammers nervously, “I—how do I feel? Now?” 

\ “That’s what I said.” 

“I feel nervous,” Philip says, sitting dejectedly on the bed. 
Sarah, his partner, sits beside him. 

“Don’t you know that you’re always going to feel nervous? 
}: You’re the nervous type. What makes you feel nervous?” 

“1 hinking that other people will see me nervous.” 

“How do you want other people to see you?” 

“Relaxed.” 

“Well, they’ll think you’re relaxed if you don’t tell them you’re 
nervous, because you don’t look nervous. It comes out, though, in 
a certain indecision about just repeating. How are you going to 
; fix that?” 



60 

“I’m going to deal more with my partner.” 

“And less with . . . ?” 

“Me?” ' . . < 

“Your nervousness. How did you get so nervous?” 

“I’m not so sure. Maybe a lot of sugar, a lot of coffee—” 

“A lot of parents!” 

“Parents?” Philip asks. “Yeah, they did it.” The class laughs. 

“I told you what to do to your mother.” 

“Kick her? Just kick her?” 

“I didn’t say kick her, I said retaliate.” 

“Punch her out?” 

“I’ll tell you what. Don’t punch her out, just lay all your 
attention on Sarah and stop announcing to the world how ner¬ 
vous you are. Everybody's nervous! Aren’t you?” The class re¬ 
sponds with a chorus of “Yes.” 

“You know, you get better all the time. You don’t have real 
freedom yet, as you well know, because you’re always afraid 
you’ll be wrong. I think that’s where your mother comes in.” 

“And father.” 

“Him too?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Stay away from them.” 

“I do that as much as I can.” 

“Then put all your attention on Sarah.” Meisner regards 
Philip and adds, “It gets better. You had long passages in there 
that were pure without your announcing how you felt. Nobody 
gives a damn how you feel, you know? Nobody cares. We care 
when your concern about how you feel hurts your exercise. What 
do you want? For us to burst into tears because you’re nervous? 
To hell with us! Put your attention on Sarah and repeat what you 
hear, okay?” As Philip and Sarah return to their seats Meisner 
removes his microphone and whispers to Scott Roberts, “You 
know, he gets better all the time.” 

“Now, I’m not talking about anybody in particular; I’m talking 
in general. Where is the performance born in good actors? What 



|> BEYOND REPETITION 6 1 

makes a Maureen Stapleton? Where does her performance come 
: from?” 

“Herself,” Ray says. 

“In her ability to believe in the given circumstances of the 
script,” John adds. 

“She has great actor’s faith,” Meisner says. “What is actor’s 
faith?” 

“She believes that the imaginary circumstances are truer than 
true,” Joseph says. 

“Let’s just say that she believes they are true. What else? 
Ralph?” 

“You’re willing to believe it even though you may doubt that 
it’s true.” 

“A real actor finds a way of eliminating the doubt.” 

Vince holds up his hand. “You do it for its own sake without 
having to understand it intellectually.” 

“What does intellect have to do with acting?” Meisner asks. 
“Nothing,” Vince says. Meisner nods, and for a moment seems 
lost in thought. 

“Next week I’m going to start you with scripts, which we will 
treat as if they were exercises. They’re usually better parts than 
you normally get to play, even though they’re very old-fashioned. 
They all have a human problem. Scott, it’s up to you when I give 
them out.” 

“I’ll have them on Monday,” Scott Roberts says. . 

“I’d like to start on the problem of preparation before Christ¬ 
mas,” Meisner says with a sly grin. “I hope it doesn’t ruin your 
holiday.” 

November 7 

“Joseph, for the most part you were all right. But there’s occa¬ 
sionally a tendency to be logical and mental. Now, when you get 
to a text—which is coming up—you don’t have to worry about 
being logical because the text does it for you. If the script has 
your partner announce that he is going to get drunk, the play- 



62 

wright will give you an appropriate response. But in this exercise 
if you stick to the repetition, which is illogical and comes purely 
from what you hear, you’ll overcome a tendency to use your head 
logically. Do you understand?” 

“Yes.” ,w. 

“Beethoven had a landlady who reported that after he had been 
working for a certain period of time, he took a pail of cold water 
and poured it over his head. He was a nut, but that need for water 
wouldn’t have happened if he was working logically from his 
head. He needed it.because he was working from his intestines. 
That’s why he was so emotionally overheated.” Meisner pauses 
to put out a cigarette. “Joseph, you were right to go when you 
did. The impulse to go was genuine. She provoked it and you got 
the message, right? Acting is all a give-and-take of those impulses 
affecting each person. Am I making myself clear?” 

“Yes,” Joseph says. 

“Am I to you?” He asks Joseph’s partner, Beth, whose hair has 
been pulled back from her face with a black ribbon. She nods. 
“What were you doing?” 

“I was filling out some forms in order to get an important 
project approved, and I didn’t realize that there was a deadline. 
They have to be in the mail by midnight.” 

“If that activity were as significant as your words tell me it was, 
Beth, this would have been a different exercise because you 
would have been totally involved, and Joseph would have been 
in an upheaval. You follow? Beth could have driven Joseph crazy 
with that exercise if she’d made this activity more important than 
the repetition.” 

“Well, this was absolutely real to me in the sense that it was 
more important than anything else,” Beth says defensively. 

“I can only accept that if it’s in your behavior. Beethoven 
couldn’t pour a pail of water over his head to cool off unless what 
he was doing was a very strong, inner experience. Try to tighten 
the repetition. Try to let it move in its organic rhythm. Don’t be 
torn between ‘sense’ and the emotional impact of so-called ‘sense¬ 
less’ repetition.” 

“Would you say that again?” Beth asks. 




ft BEYOND REPETITION 63 

“What did I say?” 

“You said don’t be caught between ‘sense,’ ” replies Joseph, 
“and the impact of the . . . the emotional impact... of the so-called 
‘senseless’ repetition.” 

“Why did you come into the room, or have you forgotten?” 

“I came in to invite her to go to a party with me.” 

“Had she lived truthfully under the imaginary circumstances 
imposed by her independent activity, this could easily have 
ended with your giving her the old heave-ho and going to the 
party with some other girl. How I would have loved that! That 
would have been marvelous!” 


November 10 

Before John and Rose Marie begin their exercise, she helps him 
move the long table to the center of the room and push the bed 
against the back wall. Then she leaves the room, closing the door 
behind her. John sits at the table, takes a sheaf of typed pages 
from a manila envelope and begins to read them intently, mark¬ 
ing them occasionally with a red pencil. Suddenly there is a sharp 
rap at the door, then another, and finally a third. Reluctantly 
John leaves the table and opens the door. 

“Persistent,” he says. 

“Yeah, persistent,” Rose Marie says, framed in the open door¬ 
way. 

“Persistent,” John repeats. 

“Yeah, something wrong with that?” Rose Marie inquires. 

“Something wrong with that?” 

“Something wrong with that?” 

“Nothing wrong with that,” John says, and for a moment 
hesitates. 

“Are you inviting me in?” Rose Marie asks. 

“Am I inviting you in?” 

“Yeah, are you inviting me in?” 

... “Am I inviting—” 

“Yeah,” Rose Marie snaps, “some big question?” 



64 

“Well, it’s not a big question,” John says with annoyance. “In 
or out?” 

“In or out!” 

“In or out?” 

“What is this; an interrogation?” Rose Marie asks. 

“No, it’s not an interrogation,” John says. Rose Marie glares 
at him defiantly. “In or out!” he exclaims. 

“Don’t treat me like a baby,” she warns. 

“I’m not treating you like a baby.” . 

“You’re treating me like a baby.” ■ 

“In or out,” John says with great finality. After a moment, 
Rose Marie walks into the room. John closes the door, then moves 
quickly to the table and resumes editing his papers. 

“That’s pretty stupid,” Rose Marie remarks, looking at his 
seated figure. “So I’m not here now!” John glances in annoyance 
at her for a moment, then returns to work. “You have such a 
mean look!” she exclaims; yet she continues to watch him work¬ 
ing with fascination. 

After a pause Rose Marie says, “That must be pretty hard.” 

“Yeah, it’s hard,” John says, and begins to chew his upper lip. 

“Ah ha!” Rose Marie exclaims. “You’re chewing your mouth!” 

“Yeah, I’m chewing my mouth.” 

“Oh, sorry. You’re so businesslike.'” 

“I’m so businesslike.” 

“Right,” Rose Marie says, and pauses for a few seconds before 
taking a step toward the table, 

“What do you want?” John asks sharply. 

“What do I want?” Rose Marie repeats, 

“What do you. want?” 

“Are you pissed off at me?” 

“Am I pissed off at you?” 

“ Yeah , are you pissed off at me?” 

“Yes,” John says firmly, “I’m pissed off at you.” 

“All right, I’ll go.” 

, “You’ll go.” 

' “Yeah, I’ll go.” 

“You’ll go?” 



65 


Ip BEYOND REPETITION 

■ . “That’s what you want, right?” 

T “That’s what I want, right!” 

“You’re being mean.” 

/ “Mean?” 

• “Yeah, don’t you think you are?” she says. He glares at her. 
“Nice look!” After a moment she adds quietly, “You’re just being 
a jerk.” She regards him intently and then walks firmly to the 
door and closes it behind her. 

“Scott,” Meisner says to his assistant, “we’d better get to those 
scenes quickly because they’re playing them! That was a scene, 
you know. It was a scene. ” 

“It was?” Rose Marie asks, coming back in. 

“Oh, sure. It was not a repetition exercise, but I’ll tell you this; 
if you were the right type for a part, if you looked like, as they 
say, ‘the girl,’ and if you, John, fit the playwright’s description 
v; of ‘the man’ and you played your scene with this much unforced, 
simple, unpushed reality, you’d be good! But it wasn’t repetition, 
except occasionally. It was really a scene. What point am I mak- 
: ing?” 

Ray leans forward in his seat. “Instead of sticking to the rule 
| of the exercise where you repeat and repeat and repeat until 
something changes what it is that you are repeating, they left all 
that unsaid and emotionally went from one thing to another. 
And it had its own sort of logic about how long she was going 
to be allowed to stay in the room, how angry he was—” 

“Were they relaxed?” 

.“Very,” Ray says. 

“Were they emotionally true?” 

“Yes,” Joseph says. 

“Was their dialogue acceptable as simple, truthful dialogue?” 
Heads nod in agreement. “That’s what you had; you had a scene. 
Occasionally you went back to the exercise, but this kind of 
relaxation, plus working off each other, is what makes a scene.” 
Meisner looks at John and Rose Marie, who stand opposite him 
behind the table. “In a way I’m paying you a compliment, while 
at the same time I'm not really crazy about the fact that you’re 
already playing a scene.” 



66 

November 14 

“John, take her by the left arm and throw her out! Right 
now!” 

John grabs Wendy’s arm, coolly pushes her out the door and 
slams it shut. 

“Now, y.ou should have done that without my suggesting it. 
Why didn’t you?” 

“Because it didn’t seem valid in terms of doing the exercise. I 
know what you’re saying—that my impulse should have been to 
throw her out because she really was bothering me.” 

“So why didn’t you?” 

“Because I didn’t.” 

“So why didn’t you?” 

“Because I was working out of my head. I was doing what I 
thought I should be doing.” 

“If you threw her out, there wouldn’t be any exercise?” 

“Right.” 

“But the point is that you do exercises in order to train yourself 
to follow the truth!”. 

“I know. I just missed it, that’s all.” 

“Look, let me tell you something seriously. In life . . . life is 
terrible, I think. But on the stage you have a wonderful opportu¬ 
nity to tell the truth, and all that can come of it is praise. That s 
true, do you understand?” John nods. “Your work is all right, but 
the quality is more important than the quantity. What does that 
mean?” 

“It means that even if the exercise had gone on only a quarter 
as long, if I had followed my impulse to throw her out, it would 
have been much more truthful.”' 

“And to your ultimate advantage as an actor. Do you see? 

“Yes.” 


November 17 

“I have a surprise for you all today—scripts! They are all old-hat 
scenes, antiques, but they’re perfect for our immediate needs. 



W:- ; • 

BEYOND REPETITION 67 

These scenes are old-fashioned only in the sense that they were 
written before you were born. But every one of them has a 
compelling human problem; that’s why I picked them. I want 
you to take your script and learn it without meaning, without 
readings, without interpretation, without anything. Just learn the 
lines by rote, mechanically. I want that to be very clear. ‘To/ 
be/or/not/to/be/that/is/the/question:’” As Meisner coldly re¬ 
cites the famous line, his hand taps his desk mechanically on each 
syllable. “No tsuris —that’s French for trouble—no iambic pen¬ 
tameter, nothing but the cold text. Then, when you know the 
words mechanically, with ease, take a walk with your partner— 
any street will do—and go over the text so that you know yours 
and she knows hers. If you want to stop off and get a cup of coffee, 
it’s okay with me. Do the lines then. Shock the busboy who’s 
studying at the American Academy. ‘They don’t know what 
they’re saying! They speak like robots!’ Shock the pants off him!” 

November 21 

With cold, mechanical precision, John and Ralph have just re¬ 
cited a scene from Mister Roberts. 

“Okay,” Meisner begins, “they said those lines in a way that 
must be terribly alien to you, right? No meaning, no readings. 
Nothing that rote permits anybody to see as a human experience. 
Now, does anyone have any suspicion of what I’m getting at 
here? Bette, what’s your suspicion?” 

Bette, the daughter of a famous comedienne recently married 
to a producer of television commercials, looks relaxed, but there 
is an edge of nervous energy contained just beneath the surface. 
“I had a glimmer when Bruce and I were practicing. I felt that 
it’s so raw and so untouched when we do it by rote that what we 
can add to it emotionally is unlimited because we are free of 
immediately insisting that it be read one way or another,” 

“I like what you said. ‘Raw.’ You follow? Raw. ’ I’m insisting 
on this mechanical approach in order to avoid calculated results. 
John?” 

“I think it’s tough,” John says. 



68 

“You think it’s tough?” ....... 

“You know, on the way over here we were doing it and there 
were times Ralph said to me, ‘You’re reading, you’re doing a 
reading.’ I guess I fell into that old pattern I’ve done all my life.” 

“That’s right,” Meisner replies.“I’m trying to eliminate a 
habit that, as you said, you’ve done all your acting life. In order 
to build up performances which are coming out of you, which are 
coming out of your emotional grasp of the material, I choose to 
reduce you to a neutral, meaningless, inhuman object—a robot, 
call it what, you like. In order to fill those words with the truth 
of your emotional life you’re first going to learn the text coldly, 
without expression, in a completely neutral way.” 


“I want to show you something. John, come over here.” 

John leaves his seat and stands next to the desk. Meisner moves 
around it to stand next to him. 

“Now turn around,” he says. “Make your position as firm and 
as rigid as you can. If necessary, hold on to the desk but make 
yourself absolutely steadfast.” 

“Okay.” .. 

“I don’t think you’re solid enough. Are you?” 

“Yeah.” 

Meisner places the palms of both hands on John’s shoulders 
and attempts to budge him. “I don’t make any impression on 
him!” he says. “I’ll try again. John, do the same thing.” 

Again John holds on to the edge of the desk, so tightly that the 
knuckles of his hands turn white. 

“He’s stiff!” Meisner says, and then spells the word “ S-t-i-f '/” 
The class laughs. “Now, John, relax.” 

John lets go of the desk, turns and shakes the tension from his 
arms and shoulders. Meisner gives him a firm but gentle shove 
and John takes two long, loose steps forward. 

“He’s responsive! Do you see that? Relax.” Meisner pushes him 
again, and again John ambles forward. “He’s responsive to what 
I do. Thank you, John. Sit down. 

“Now, if you are neutral.. . Neutral—what’s that mean? Open 



BEYOND REPETITION 69 

to any influence, right? If you are neutral, you will achieve a kind 
of emotional flexibility, won’t you? If you’re tense, if you’re 
unrelaxed, like John was at the beginning, you’re not responsive 
to the influence of my push. Consequently I say a logical thing: 
I say, ‘Learn that text in as unmeaningful and yet in as relaxed 
a way as you can, so that you’ll be open to any influence that 
comes to you.’ Do' you follow the logic of that? If you don’t, 
say so.” 

“Neutral and relaxed,” Philip says. “Not firm and tense.” 

“Not set, not fixed. I’m saying to you as actors who work 
constantly with texts, with words, ‘Learn those words as empty, 
as unfixed, as relaxed as John was when I pushed him.’ Is there 
any question about this? That’s why I’m asking you to learn these 
lines with the precision of a machine. Mechanical precision. 
Then we’ll go on from there.” 

“If you find yourself reading the words, putting something 
into them, do you slow down or stop or what?” Philip asks. 

“You stop. Look, I’m going to give you a line. ‘Oh, God, my 
soul is bleeding.’ Let me hear you say that.” 

“Oh, God,” Philip says, “my soul is bleeding.” 

“Now say it expressively.” 

“Oh, God, my soul is bleeding,” Philip says with added vol¬ 
ume. 

“More!” Meisner says. “Don’t you believe in God? And in 
pain?” . 

“Oh God, ” Philip bellows, “my soul is bleeding!” 

“That’s what I don't want you to do. You follow?” Meisner 
recites the line quietly, mechanically. “ ‘Oh/God/my/soul/is/ 
bleed/ing.’ Eventually that line will come right, out of the heart 
of you.” 


Meisner interrupts Dave, who has been reading his scene in a 
spooky, mechanical way, with the objection that, as is his ten¬ 
dency, Dave has gone too far; the work is too mechanical. 
“Dave, explain to me what I said to you.” 

“You want it repeated mechanically and neutrally.” 



70 


• “That’s right.” 

“I’m putting too much into it.” 

“In what way are you putting too much into it?” 

“Overemphasizing the mechanicalness of it, the syllable by 
syllable.” 

“That’s right,”- Meisner says. “What did I say to you about 
your repetition?” 

“That I wasn’t picking up on the behavior. I was simply re¬ 
peating fof the sake of repeating.” 

“Isn’t that somewhat like this? That you’re overdoing the ma¬ 
chine part of it a little too much?” 

“I was doing the exercise in an academic way. You kept saying, 
‘Repeat, repeat, repeat,’ and basically that’s all I was concentrat¬ 
ing on. I was doing the exercise in an academic way instead of 
just letting it happen, moment to moment.” 

“The word ‘academic’ is well chosen.” 

“I find this very tough to do,” Dave’s partner, Joseph, says. 

“You do? Why?” 

“We learn words by associating them with the way we say 
them—like, ‘Oh, how nice to see you.’ If you eliminate all that, 
you’ve lost your footing.” 

“That’s right,” Meisner says, “until you are mechanically, ab¬ 
solutely secure in this text, with no interpretation.” 

“But we all memorize by using an emotion to give the words 
some sort of significance so that we can remember them,” Joseph 
says. “So it’s usual to have a cadence attached to the way we’re 
doing it.” 

“Which you have in your ear, right?” Meisner asks. “This way 
of working eliminates all that. What might be the value of this 
to you?” 

“Well,” Joseph says, “it deprives you of any preconceived emo¬ 
tional associations, so that once you learn the text this way, the 
emotion will come out of what your partner is giving you.” 

“To begin with,” Meisner adds. “So that you don’t have the 
habit of saying, ‘Go to the store and get me a salami sandwich 
because I love salami!’ ” His eerie voice through the microphone 
seems to slide up and then down an octave on the word “love,” 
and the class laughs. 



BEYOND REPETITION 7 1 

“The ‘love’ is a cliche,” Meisner says. “What other reactions 
are there? John?” 

“It seems that whatever we do get out of this exercise is going 
to be full and honest—” 

Meisner interrupts. “And improvisational. It’s going to be an 
improvisation. Fundamentally that’s a very healthy thing to do. 
It strips you of your past habits.” 

“I like that,” Bette says. “I like that a lot.” 

“I don’t blame you in the least.” 


November 28 

Anna and Vincent, whose partners are absent, get ready to per¬ 
form an exercise. Vincent has* an independent activity (attempt¬ 
ing to memorize a script in preparation for an audition), and 
Anna is to knock and enter the room. Before she leaves, Meisner 
calls her over arid whispers a brief instruction in her ear. 

The effect on the exercise is galvanizing. Anna enters enraged. 
Though the exact reason for her anger is never discussed, her 
behavior makes it clear that she believes that Vincent has slan¬ 
dered her. She is livid, and Vincent is rendered almost speechless. 
Meisner is pleased. 

“Okay,” he says when Anna slams out of the room, “that was 
very good. Now, look,” he says to the class, “that was the basic 
exercise, but it had something added to it. What?” 

“She came in furious,” Bette says. 

“An emotional circumstance. I, as the director, added an emo¬ 
tional circumstance to the exercise, and that made it into a scene. 
In an exercise there is no learned text. All of you are now in the 
process of learning a text. What’s absent from that learning is 
what we just witnessed—an emotional circumstance.” 

“Sandy, would you say again what’s missing?” Joseph asks. 

“What’s missing from what you’re doing now with these texts 
is anything that has to do with an emotional circumstance. 

“You’re talking about our learning the lines mechanically?” 

“Yes. In the future . . . But that brings up the thorny subject 
of preparation, which I’m saving for your Christmas present. 




72 


Anna, that was very good. Vince taught you some naughty 
words.” 6 / 

“I know.” - 

“That’s all right,” Meisner says, “you taught him some too.” 

“Let’s talk about this.” ,, ... , , ' 

Meisner interrupts a scene between Rose Marie and John. A 
They have memorized the lines and are saying them quietly, but 
with the sound of human conversation. 

What we re looking for is the picking up not of cues but of 
impulses. One doesn’t pick up cues, one picks up impulses. I’ll 
show you. Rose Marie, say something to me.” 

“You have very smooth skin.” 

- “Yes, but keep going.” . r . 

“You have very smooth skin. It looks like you spend a lot of 
. time in the sun.” 

“Yes, I have smooth skin,” Meisner says. “Now, when did the 
impulse for my speech come? The impulse for my speech came 
early! At the beginning of the speech. I’ll show it to you in another 
way. It’s very simple, very improvisational. John, ask me if I want 
a drink, and then tell me that you have scotch, vodka, bourbon 
gin and a lot of soft drinks.” ’ 

Sandy, would you like a drink? I have scotch, vodka, bourbon 
gin and—” ’ | 

Meisner, whose eyes lit up and whose right hand waved po- 
ltely in the air on hearing the word “scotch,” interrupts John’s 
litany with the line “Scotch, please.” 

The class laughs. 

^ Now, when did the impulse for that happen?” 

Scotch,” says Rose Marie. 

At the beginning! That’s very different, picking up the im¬ 
pulse instead of picking up the cue.” 

So you’re saying that if the impulse is at the beginning, you § 
must sustain it until he stops and you can say, ‘Scotch’?” ? 

Until the cue comes. You don’t pick up cues, you pick up ^ 

impulses. ” r ' 3 

I guess it s a matter of my knowing the script a lot better i 

Jj 

t 

Vs 

% 




;,i BEYOND REPETITION 73 

in order to be able to tune in to the impulses,” John says. 

“Absolutely right,” Meisner says. “But that’s not bad for the 
first time. That’s the way a script initially resolves itself. Rose 
Marie, why did you knock on the door?” 

“I thought I was supposed to for the exercise.” 

“You live here!” 

“I know. I’m still a little unclear about what exactly we’re 
doing. Is this an exercise or is it a scene?” 

“It’s a scene which is being handled improvisationally—that is, 
impulse to impulse.” 

“I’m supposed to work off his behavior and not the text, right?” 

“Both. Look, I’ll do it for you. Your speech to me is, ‘You’re 
weak. You promised that you’d never take another drink again 
if you lived to be a hundred, but you’ve broken your word.’ And 
my answer is, ‘I’m not weak.’ Now, where does the impulse for 
that happen? Right at the beginning! Don't pick up cues , pick up 
impulses. Say your text to me again.” 

“ ‘You’re weak. You said you’d never take a drink again as long 
as you lived and you didn’t even keep your word.’ ” 

“ ‘I’m not weak.’ I was acting all through that! Did you see 
that?” 

“You’re not necessarily asking us to start our line before the 
partner finishes his line?” Bette asks. 

“No! I said wait for the cue, but the impulse, the emotion, 
comes whenever it’s felt. You’ll get used to it once you have a 
command over the script. I’m saying two things to you: learn the 
lines; pick up the impulses.” 


“I liked it very much." 

r Joseph and Beth have just completed their scene. 

“Joseph, you know your wife’s betraying you, right? I don’t 
care what you do or how you do it, but you, Joseph, get into a 
certain condition when you find out your girl’s' betraying you. I’d 
like to see that next time. 

“Beth, you’re going to be free of that creep of a husband pretty 
soon. Doesn’t that make you feel good? Let’s see what happens 
when Beth feels in good spirits. Now, one of these days—I hope 




it will be before we quit for Christmas—I’ll begin to show you 
the elements of that agonizing problem, preparation, which is the 
self-stimulation of your emotion. It’s the most subtle problem in 
acting, believe me. And we’ll get to it, but not yet. Next time 
finish the scene with these two additions: Joe in a lousy mood— 

I don’t care what you do—and Beth in a wonderful mood I 
don’t care what you do. I’m anticipating emotional preparation. 

“ ‘There goes your mother after her darling David,’ ” Meisner 
says, quoting Sarah’s line from a scene from Sidney Howard’s 
The Silver Cord, which she and Philip have just completed. “Now, 
that line is spoken while you’re looking through the window and 
seeing his mother walking, right? But you’re never going to see 
his mother walking. If you look out the window onstage, you re 
going to see scenery stacked up against the wall. You re going to 
see the stage manager trying to make the ingenue. You’re going 
to see everything but what you’re supposed to see. Suppose I’m 
reading from my script in rehearsal while we’re still sitting 
around the table, and I read, ‘If it doesn’t stop snowing, 111 never 
get back to New York and I’ll lose my job!’ ” His reading of the 
line is quiet, yet the sense of panic is palpable. “So how you feel 
about what you see is already in you when you re sitting there 
reading the script. Don’t try to see snow, because if you look 
you’re going to see the stage manager and the ingenue.” 

The class laughs. 

“Finally, at the end of the road, they bring in the scenery, and 
on one side is a wall with a window. So as a convention, you get 
up and walk to the window to make the audience believe that 
you’re looking out. It’s for the audience, not for you! And what 
it means to you is something emotional: I ll lose my job! You 
follow? If you went to the Actors Studio you’d spend six months 
seeing the snow before you could say, ‘Look at the snow. This 
takes a terrible burden away from the actor, who thinks he s got 
to see the woods and the snow. ‘Give me my gun! I see a rabbit! 
Give me my gun!’ ” Meisner sounds thrilled at the possibility of 
a hunt. “That happens when you’re still sitting there reading. 



BEYOND REPETITION 75 

Then when they put in the scenery you move to the window. 
Isn’t that simple? How simple it is to solve the problem of seeing 
things when you know that it’s all in you emotionally, and that 
walking to the window is only a convention.” 


“Dave, what would you do if you were suddenly given a hundred 
thousand dollars? By the way, I once said that to a class—no one 
older than twenty-two—and a girl sitting right there said, ‘But 
I have a hundred thousand dollars!’ ” 

The class laughs. 

“What would you do, Dave, if you had a hundred thousand 
dollars?” 

“Buy myself a home.” 

“That’s too general and prosaic. Besides, what kind of a home 
can you get for a hundred thousand dollars?” 

“Not in New York City.” 

“In Uganda? What would you do?” 

Dave pauses, his face rapt in thought. “That’s what I’d do. I’d—” 

“That’s all?” Meisner asks. Dave looks straight ahead in si¬ 
lence. “It’s interesting that you can’t or won’t—the chances are 
you won’t—answer that question.” He looks at Bette. “What 
would you do if I gave you a hundred thousand dollars?” 

“I’d thank you and thank you and thank you.” 

“That’s not activity, that’s politeness.” 

Vince raises his hand. “The first thing I’d do is call my accoun¬ 
tant.” 

“What?” Meisner says incredulously. 

“The first thing I’d do is call my accountant,” Vince re¬ 
peats, “and make sure that I’d covered all the taxes and shelters, 
and then I’d probably buy some art I want, some Mir6 aqua¬ 
tints.” 

“What are you saying?” 

“I’m saying I’d make sure to protect myself so that I wouldn’t 
have to pay taxes, and then get some Mir6s I really want to buy.” 

“You know,” Meisner says, “the trouble with your answer, 
Vince, and with yours, Dave, is that they’re prosaic and worldly 



76 V .. . : • 

and commonplace. Any garbage collector would think of them. 
I like you both, so I’m not recommending you to the Department 
of Sanitation.” 

“What are you saying?” Rose Marie demands with great seri¬ 
ousness. “That if somebody’s dreams are ordinary, then they’re 
not talented? If they say something like that, they’re not wor¬ 
thy?” 

“I’m saying that wishful thinking is a product of the imagina¬ 
tion. On the one hand, if someone said, ‘I’d pay my rent for the 
next five years,’ I’d say, ‘Bullshit. That’s too realistic, it’s too 
unimaginative, it’s too practical.’ On the other hand, what if a 
girl said, ‘I’d like to go to the White House in a dress that’s made 
of solid emeralds. Gorgeous! Solid emeralds! On some kind of 
cloth which can only be made by one nun in India!’ That’s extrav- 
agant, but it’s the essence of wishful thinking.” 

Meisner pauses to adjust the microphone on his glasses. “I’m 
talking about imagination. Wishful thinking is based on imagina¬ 
tion. Stimulating imagination—do you see that? If I say, ‘I’ll give 
you a hundred thousand dollars. What will you do with it?,’ and 
you say, Til buy a house, furnish it and pay the taxes on it for 
the next twenty years!,’ that’s practical. It’s not out of your imagi¬ 
native soul; it’s out of your wish to be secure. But the dress made 
of emeralds is pure, untouched imagination. That’s what wishful 
thinking is. Am I making the difference clear? One is the product 
of imagination and the other is based on prosaic reality. I want 
to make that point very clear because it is a prelude to prepara¬ 
tion. That’s all I’m going to say now; it’s a prelude to the imagina¬ 
tive use of yourself. As I said—to repeat—it’s a prelude, a remark 
which is a prelude to preparation.” 

“Sandy?” says Bette. “I have a suggestion.” 

“Yeah?” 

“I think that the next time you should ask us what we would 
do with a million. A hundred thousand doesn’t go as far as it used 
to.” * 

“That’s true,” Meisner says. “I’ve found that out.” 

The class laughs. 



BEYOND REPETITION 77 

I! 

The menu is the usual: tuna on a seeded roll and black coffee. 

“Scott,” Meisner says, “remind me this afternoon of the actress 
I once heard of who, when she got a role, wrote it out as if it were 
one continuous sentence, so that the other fellow always came in 
like an unpremeditated, spontaneous interruption. That would 
be good for all of them.” 

Scott Roberts nods and makes a note on his yellow legal 
pad. 



6 


|Sg| Preparation: “In the Harem of My Head” 




ben: [enters]. Let’s go. 
fill libby: Where to? 

ispNp ben: Empire. We’ll see Marlene Dietrich. 

Pf. GUS: Marlene—she’s the intellect and artistic type. 
iiliPi r . 

g|ffi| Marlene, I got her in the harem of my head., 

—Clifford Odets, Paradise Lost 



December 1 


“Today is going to be devoted to preparation,” Meisner says. 
“Preparation is that device which permits you to start your scene 
or play in a condition of emotional aliveness. The purpose of 
preparation is so that you do not come in emotionally empty. I 
want to be very simple about this whole subject. If you sign the 
contract in the Shubert offices for a wonderful part in a wonder¬ 
ful play, the obvious implication is that you are bursting with joy 
when you write your name on the document. Even if you live in 
Riverdale, forty-five minutes away by subway, the pleasure and 
pride that was instilled in you in the Shubert office is still there 
in some form by the time you get home. Ask me questions if I 
don’t make it clear.” 



79 


PREPARATION: “IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 

He pauses, but the class understands what he is saying. 

“Now, preparation is going to present you with certain prob¬ 
lems. One is the temptation to show it. ‘Look, Ma, how happy I 
am—or miserable.’ ‘Look, audience, how overjoyed I am.’ So you 
project your state of being. You do things to make people sense 
your emotional condition. Another thing, which cannot be re¬ 
peated too often, is that preparation lasts only for the first mo¬ 
ment of the scene, and then you never know what’s going to 
happen. I’ll illustrate that. Rose Marie, don’t let me forget to 
illustrate that. 

“In the early days of the Stanislavsky System, Mr. S. was look¬ 
ing for true behavior, and if what he wanted was great pleasure, he 
asked where you look for the reality of great pleasure. His answer 
was simple: you remember a time when you were under the influ¬ 
ence of great pleasure. That’s called ‘emotion memory.’ I don’t use 
it, and neither did he after thirty years of experimentation. The 
reason? If you are twenty and work in a delicatessen, the chances 
are very slim that you can remember that glorious night you had 
with Sophia Loren. The chances are slight that you know the full 
pleasure of that kind of glorified sex. Am I making myself clear?” 

The class nods. 

“In other words, what I am saying is that what you’re looking 
for is not necessarily confined to the reality of your life. It can 
be in your imagination. If you allow it freedom—with no inhibi¬ 
tions, no proprieties—to imagine what would happen between 
you and Sophia Loren, your imagination is, in all likelihood, 
deeper and more persuasive than the real experience. Is that 
clear? Can anybody tell me what I’m saying?” 

John raises his hand. “You’re saying that our imaginations are 
every bit as strong, if not stronger, than the experiences we can 
recall from our past.” 

“Right. Rose Marie?” 

“So if I needed to feel that some great burden had been taken 
off my back, could I use something like, ‘I’ll never have to work 
for the next ten years—I won the lottery’? Is it better to use the 
circumstances from my real life, like how much I hate serving 
bacon cheeseburgers, and how sudden freedom from doing that 
kind of work would make me cry with joy?” 



80 

“It’s, better to use what moves you, what affects you. ” 

“So I don’t have to pretend that I’m Cinderella—” 

“No!” 

“Or that I live in a hut and have always wanted to have a pair 
of glass shoes—” 

“No, you don’t have to, but if living in a hut and finally getting 
a pair of shoes does it for you, use it. All I’m saying—don’t 
complicate it—is don’t come in empty. Get your inner life from 
what given circumstances suggest. This has to do with the self¬ 
stimulation of your emotion. The reason I asked you about wish¬ 
ful thinking was because I want you to find in yourself that 
element which belongs only to you and to no one else, which is 
stimulating for you and for no one else. Now, the source of where 
you find that inner life is not necessarily related to the needs of 
the scene. In the last century, the English actor William Charles 
Macready, before playing a certain scene in The Merchant of Venice, 
used to try to shake the iron ladder backstage that was embedded 
in the brick. He’d try and try, and would get furious because he 
couldn’t budge it. Then he went on and played the scene. Am I 
being clear?” 

“You say that your preparation is not necessarily related to the 
scene,” Ray says. “In the case of Macready, could it be that he got 
furious at the ladder and then went on to play a love scene?” 

“It could be that he got furious at the ladder and then went on 
to play the fact that his girl had kept him waiting in front of 
Radio City for an hour and a half. That’s possible. Look, I’m 
presenting you with the premise, ‘Don’t come in empty.’ Yes?” 

“I find the things that stimulate me,” Bette says, “are physical 
things more than thinking about serving hamburgers or Cinder¬ 
ella or something intellectual, which doesn’t move me.” 

“You’ve got to find the things that stimulate yott. If I want to 
come in feeling romantically sad because my girl left me for an 
older man—•” 

The class laughs. 

“I might be able to get it from singing that schmaltzy theme 
from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Are you getting the gen¬ 
eral idea? The dress embroidered with emeralds is pure imagina- 



81 


PREPARATION: “IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 


tion. You don’t even know what there is about emeralds that 
titillates you, but you do know that two big emeralds on your 
finger make you feel like royalty!” 

“I thought about that all week,” Rose Marie says, “and maybe 
I should see a psychiatrist, but I have never even given myself the 
option of thinking of dressing in emeralds like that. Maybe I 
should stop thinking of mundane things and start to dream 
more.” 

“It’s not true that you only think about mundane things,” 
Meisner says. “I’ll tell you what I mean about that. First of all, 
Dr. Freud—Ziggy, his friends call him—maintains that all fan¬ 
tasy comes either from ambition or sex. For example, if I gave 
you a million dollars—I’ve gotten more charitable since last week 
—and you told me that you’d use it to build yourself a glorious 
house in Hollywood, that would be ambition. And for sex? I m re¬ 
minded of a joke. Two guys go to the movies. They get on line, and 
one of them says, ‘You know, Sophia Loren was marvelous in bed 
the night I had her.’ The other guy doesn’t reply, and the first 
guy says, ‘I had a fine time with Liz Taylor, too. She has great 
elan.' The other fellow still doesn’t say anything, but finally he 
smiles and says, ‘You know Greta Garbo? I’m having her 
now.’ ” 

The class laughs. 

“That’s preparation! Right now! ‘The beast with two backs.’ ” 

Again more laughter. 

“Did I tell you about the guy on a bus who hated David Mer¬ 
rick? Well, this guy—a would-be playwright who was desperate 
to get away from his father’s zipper factory—spent the day sit¬ 
ting in David Merrick’s outer office, and Merrick wouldn’t see 
him. Going home on the bus, he sees an advertisement with an 
elegant man smoking a cigar and, though the guy doesn t realize 
it, the man looks a little bit like Merrick. Suddenly his mind 
begins churning. ‘That fool! Just because he s got a desk sixty feet 
long filled with plays, he thinks he’s a producer. Well, he’s had 
more flops than the Shuberts and the Nederlanders put together!’ 
Well, he continues to fume about the incompetence and crass 
stupidity of David Merrick until the bus comes to his stop. An 



82 


old lady has her feet in the aisle, but he’s not looking because he’s 
so furious, so he trips over the poor old lady’s feet. He says, ‘Go 
fuck yourself!’ ” 

The class laughs. 

See, the accident of the advertisement led to free association, 
which led in turn to the rage that the poor old lady bore the brunt 

That s an example of how free association can induce a prepa¬ 
ration. Macready shook a ladder, somebody else sings a song, 
somebody else wears a dress made of emeralds, somebody else 
wins the lottery and has ten years with nothing to do but to 
become the best actress she can be. But these approaches can be 
repeated only as long as they’re effective. When I was sixteen, I 
was mad for the Tchaikovsky symphonies, but if I hear one now, 
my reaction is, ‘It’s so corny!’ In other words, what stimulates 
you changes.” 

Meisner pauses to let the class absorb his point.' 

When I was thirteen—excuse my using these personal exam¬ 
ple 5 I always talked through the regular Monday morning as¬ 
sembly in public school. I was a very nervous kid. I even talked 
while they were playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Finally 
the principal, Julius Bloom, called me out from the audience and 
said, ‘Go to my office and wait for me,’ which I did. Well, I had 
to bring my mother. I had to bring my father. My punishment 
was that I had to sit in the corner in the last row and nobody was 
allowed to talk to me. This was during the First World War and, 
since I was unpatriotic, I must be a German sympathizer. That 
went on and on, and it’s not fun to be ostracized that way. Then 
they had a big contest: write an essay on why we should all buy 
Liberty Bonds. I won first prize. What could they do with me? 
Here I m not patriotic and I write the prize-winning composi¬ 
tion! So I was reinstated.” 

Meisner lights a cigarette. 

The point Im making is that when I think back on that 
experience, I think it’s both amusing and stupid, but that’s not 
what I’m supposed to be feeling when somebody says, ‘Remem¬ 
ber how hysterical you were when they threw you out of school?’ 
Over time the meaning of the past changes. That’s one of the 
reasons I don’t like ‘emotion memory,’ and that’s one of the 



PREPARATION: “IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 83 

reasons Stanislavsky gave it up.” For a moment, Meisner seems 
lost in thought. 

Rose Marie holds up her hand. 

“Sandy, you asked me to remind you to illustrate something.” 

“Oh, yes. Do you want to do it?” She stands up. “Then pick 
someone to be your partner, your boyfriend.” She chooses John. 
“Look, I’m going to tell her what the precircumstances are— 
what you, Rose Marie, bring onstage with you. The two of you 
live here together. Scott Roberts?” he says to his assistant, who 
sits next to the amplifier that supplies his voice. “Turn that off 
so I can whisper.” 

He whispers to Rose Marie for a few moments and then she 
leaves the room, closing the door behind her. 

“Now, John, I want you to lie on that bed.” When projected, 
Meisner’s unamplified voice can easily be heard. “You’ve just had 
a fatal heart attack, and now, and for the rest of this scene, you’re 
dead. Can you manage that?” 

“Sure,” John says, and he sprawls on the bed. Minutes pass 
before Rose Marie, looking radiantly happy, bursts into the 
room. In a moment she sees John’s lifeless body and lets out a cry 
of surprise. She goes to him, takes his hand, and with her other 
hand pats him on the cheek. She is panic-stricken, and after 
another minute turns to Meisner and says, “This is where I 
would call a doctor.” 

“Okay,” Meisner says. “Now this illustrates my point: prepa¬ 
ration lasts only for the first moment. Do you see my point? I’ll 
tell you something, Rose Marie. No criticism. It’s a comment. 
Your preparation w'as too thin. Suppose you d decided to come 
up to the third floor singing at the top of your voice? I told her 
that she’d just signed a tremendous Hollywood contract and that 
her boyfriend was included in it. They were going to California. 
That’s why she came in, and that’s why I said, ‘Your preparation 
was too thin.’ And I told him what I told him. He’s dead; he had 
a heart attack. Very extreme, but that’s the point. Any ques¬ 
tions?” 

“You said my preparation was too thin,” Rose Marie says. “If 
I was home I probably would have been screaming with joy. A 
few weeks ago I got a phone calL—” 



“Then that's what you should have done!” 

“I was afraid I’d be ‘showing’ what I felt.” 

“No! You wouldn’t be showing it. Do you know what ‘show¬ 
ing it’ means? Let’s say an idiot director tells me that one of my 
precircumstances comes from the fact that I saw a cute little dog 
run over, and I go to a dark corner to prepare. So I prepare and 
I prepare and I prepare, and nothing happens, perhaps because 
I don’t like dogs.- Then my cue comes up so I come onstage and 
say, “Agh, agh, agh!” You follow? I’ve indicated the preparation. 
I’ve indicated the emotion I don’t have. That’s no good.” 

Meisner pauses to put out his cigarette. 

“Just one more thought and then I’ll shut up for a minute. 
Some years ago I owned a car. In winter when I got into my car, 
what’s the first thing I did when I started the car? I pulled out 
the choke to give the cold motor some extra gas. It’s a warming- 
up process, right? Well, for an actor, preparation is a warming-up 
process.” 

He looks around the classroom. “Let’s take a break.” 

“The purpose of preparation is simple: it has to do with self¬ 
stimulation. Rose Marie, you said that the idea of winning the 
lottery was stimulating to you because it meant you wouldn’t 
have to serve cheeseburgers and could devote yourself to your 
acting. You said that this made you feel so good that the tears 
came to your eyes, remember? So before you began to think about 
what you would do with the money, you were one kind of person. 
Then, when the idea of the prize money began to play on you, 
you were not the same person. You were Rose Marie in a full 
state of happiness, right?” 

Rose Marie nods. 

“So preparation is a kind of daydreaming. It is daydreaming. 
It’s daydreaming which causes a transformation in your inner 
life, so that you are not what you actually were five minutes ago, 
because your fantasy is working on you. But the character of our 
daydream is taken from the play. Let’s take Joseph Morgan as an 
example. What is the precircumstance of his scene with Beth? He 
knows that his wife is being unfaithful to him. Freud says that 



85 


PREPARATION: "IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 

fantasies come from either sex or ambition. He also says that as 
we get older we become ashamed of having fantasies,, that they 
don’t belong with adulthood, that they’re for children.” 

Meisner looks at Joseph. “Suppose—and don’t follow this, Joe 
Morgan; I’m simply using your scene because it’s relatively easy. 
Let’s assume that you decide that knowing your wife is unfaith¬ 
ful to you is an abject humiliation. Therefore you have a certain 
amount of work to do on your innards in order to propel Joe 
Morgan into an acute condition of self-humiliation. Now, where 
does he get that? Suppose he thinks of an incident where a direc¬ 
tor, after three days of working with him, stops the rehearsal. 
This might have happened in his real life or, more importantly, 
he could invent it. He has a choice! The director says in front of 
the entire company, ‘Morgan, you’re fired. You have about as 
much talent as a dead chicken!’ Do you see? You can build that 
up any way you personally like. Then the director, who is a real 
bastard, says to you, ‘I know a girl who knows you and she told 
me that you’re sexually inept, and the description she gave to me 
of your trying to be Rudolph Valentino was positively hilarious!’ 
Every word of that fantasy cuts like a knife, so that you’d like to 
crawl under the table and disappear. That’s how ashamed you’ve 
become!” 

Joseph shifts uneasily in his chair. 

“Can you see the process here? Let’s continue with our imagi¬ 
nation. Suppose that this preparation induces in Joe a need to go 
into a corner and try to disappear. Then in comes the wife, and 
the scene is between the wife and the worm! Now, that worm, 
that pathetic man, ashamed, humiliated—call it what you like— 
has been induced by imagination! You’re prepared. You’re ready. 
Then the scene begins. Am I conveying a logical process to you?” 

The class nods. 

“The fantasy of the daydream is the most personal, most secret 
of the acting values. What it means in ordinary language is that 
we use our imagination in order to fulfill in ourselves what we 
have more or less determined is our emotional condition before 
we begin the scene. I’ve quoted Freud. I’ve said that preparation 
is a product of your ambitious or sexual imagination. The guy on 
the bus who’s imagining how wretchedly he’ll treat David Mer- 



rick when he begs for the right to produce his next-play is using 
his ambitious imagination. Feeling that you want to die of shame 
because of your sexual incapacities is obviously sexual. But you 
may get all this from a piece of music. It can come from any¬ 
where. It is self-inducement coming from the imagination, which 
is the product of inventiveness.” 

Meisner pauses. “Did I tell you about Charlie Laughton in a 
picture from years ago called If I Had a Million? In it he played 
a bookkeeper—berated, persecuted, miserable. One day he inher¬ 
its a million dollars. In those days, that meant something. Sud¬ 
denly he has a scene with the awful boss who’s mistreated him 
so badly. He has to enter and say, ‘I’m finished here. Take your 
job!’ Laughton’s interpretation was that he was walking on the 
top of the world. He was triumphant! So before he knocked on 
the door and entered the boss’s office, he had to have a sense of 
triumph. If he were Vince, he might get that feeling of being on 
top of the world from his experience with girls. That usually 
gives you a feeling of being unconquerable. But suppose Laugh¬ 
ton got that feeling from boys? He’s not going to reveal his 
preparation, but he’s going to have it! And if anybody says to 
him, ‘Where did you get that feeling of being a conqueror when 
you knocked at the door?,’ his only answer is, ‘None of your 
business.’ That’s how private and personal preparation is. Sup¬ 
pose there were an actor—now I’m being ridiculous, or maybe 
not so ridiculous—who comes from South Dakota, and the near¬ 
est farmhouse is a hundred and seventy-five miles away, but 
between those two houses are thousands of available sheep?” 

“Poor sheep,” Anna says. 

“Not to the actor,” Meisner says. “I’m talking about the per¬ 
sonal, secret, intimate knowledge of preparation. So if somebody 
says to you, ‘Where do you get that marvelous emotion you bring 
on in the third act?’ The answer is simple: ‘Talent.’” 

The class laughs. 

“I’ll tell you something else about preparation. Be prepared 
to let it go astray; be prepared to make mistakes.’There’s more 
I could tell you, but I think I’ve said enough for today. As I 
talk about it, I tend to make it seem dramatically significant, 




• PREPARATION: "IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 87 

but it needn’t be. Sometimes you don’t need any preparation.” 

Again Meisner pauses. “I’m open to a few legitimate ques¬ 
tions.”' : 

John raises his hand. “When we’re working on the stage,” he 
asks, “is the idea to make our preparation as full as possible 
because we’re in a theater, as opposed to being in a film, where 
acting is much more contained?” 

“I’ll tell you this: you cannot escape the impact of emotion, 
whether it’s in a big theater or a tiny one. If you have it, it inflates 
you—correction, ‘inflates’ is not a good word. If you have it, it 
infects you and the audience. If you don’t have it—like Helen 
Hayes—don’t bother; just say the lines as truthfully as you are 
capable of doing. You can’t fake emotion. It immediately exposes 
the fact that you ain’t got it. 

“Maureen Stapleton has it all the time. Kim Stanley sometimes 
has too much. Geraldine Page is lovely. There are many good 
actors. If you’re an actor and are working off your partner the 
way you’ve been doing here, something’s going to happen.” 

Bruce holds up his hand. “When you told Joseph a couple of 
classes ago just to go out and think about his wife’s unfaithfulness 
—that was a form of preparation, wasn’t it?” 

“All I meant is that actors are responsive, just as butchers are, 
to the idea of a faithless woman. What I said was, ‘You’re no 
child. If you think about your girl being unfaithful to you some¬ 
thing emotional happens to you.’ I depended entirely on his 
normal reaction to that. I did not say, ‘Prepare.’ Today I said, 
‘Prepare,’ didn’t I? Today, for the first time, I said, ‘Prepare.’ It’s 
simple. Don’t come in empty. What do you bring with you be¬ 
cause of where you’ve just been and why? That’s all I said to you. 
Did I say more? I don’t think so. I will. I told you about Duse’s 
blush. Who’s going to explain that?” 

“A good preparation?” Vincent suggests. 

“No. It came from living truthfully under imaginary circum¬ 
stances. Preparation could never have induced that. It came from 
her genius, her completeness in living truthfully under imagi¬ 
nary circumstances.” 



88 

December 5 

“Next class I’m going to see all of your scenes with a preparation. 
Be prepared!” ■ .-.i 

“Scenes or exercises?” Ray asks- 

“You each have a scene, don’t you?” . 

“Are we supposed to rehearse it at home with a preparation?” 
Anna asks. “I mean not save it until Monday?” 

“Save it? No, do it. Change it if necessary.” 

“Do you want the_independent activities to be the same?” Bette 
asks. “Like Anna was putting on her makeup and I was reading 
a magazine?” 

“But each one adds a preparation.” 

“On top of it?” Bette asks. 

“No, underneath it.” 

“Underneath it,” Bette repeats and the class laughs. 

“The person who comes in does the preparation,” says Rose 
Marie. “What about the person who’s sitting there?” 

“He has the preparation that comes from the indepen¬ 
dent activity. One comes from' what you’re doing, and the other 
comes entirely from the way you bring the emotion to the sur¬ 
face.” 

“So in Joseph’s case, where he’s just sitting there stewing, 
waiting for his wife to show up—” 

“There’s preparation in that case. When you prepare, go into 
a dark corner if you can find one. What were we talking about 
today?” 

“We Were talking, about what you do imaginatively inside 
yourself to put you in an emotional state that carries you through 
the first moment of the scene,” Bruce says. 

John raises his hand. “Sandy, you said it would be best to find 
a dark corner or something—” 

“To be alone. It helps. Look, the fact that you’re sitting here 
in relative quiet does not mean that what I said isn’t penetrating 
into you, because it is. Now, tell me your interpretation of what 
I said.” - 

“What I got out of it,” Ray says, “is that before the scene 
begins, through your i maginat ion—mavbe hv- daydreaming, or 



PREPARATION: “IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 


89 


however you go about it—you get yourself ticking emotionally, 
so that when you enter the scene you have an emotional fullness 
which lasts as long as the first moment. It may or may not come 
up again in the course of the scene, but it brings you on alive and 
full. And you can’t necessarily relate it to the scene because it has 
to be something deeply personal to you, that only you know 
about, that only stimulates you.” 

“That’s right,” Meisner says. 

“Sandy?” John asks. “Is there a technique of talking out loud 
that somehow could pull preparation out of us rather than think¬ 
ing about it?” 1 , 

“I’ll tell you something in answer to your question. 1 here s 
nothing as personal as what makes an actor act, and of all the 
personal, secret things, preparation is the most. That’s why I m 

not saying anything more today.” 

Ray raises his hand. “In other words, you’re saying you can t 
tell us how to do it—just that we have to do it. I don’t mean that 
to sound glib. You’re saying it’s a totally personal thing, and 
there’s no technique for it. Preparation is simply something that 
must take place, and we just have to learn to do it. 

“It is something that should take place,” Meisner says, “and 
I’m pointing out as far as is possible a conscious way of starting 
the process. You follow?” 

December 8 

Lila and Dave are about to perform a scene from William Inge s 

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. 

“What are the circumstances preceding the actual scene, Lda? ’ 

Meisner asks. 

“Reenie comes in. I tell her that I think it would be good tor 
her to go to the party, and she gets upset and goes out to practice 
the piano.” 

“That’s the story of the play, right? I say that what precedes 
that scene is that you’re altering a dress which is going to make 
your daughter the belle of the ball. How do you feel about that?” 
“Oh, I’m elated. It’s a beautiful dress.” 




So Lila King is in a condition of elation, right? Now, I don’t 
know how you’re going to induce elation. You may get it from 
remembering a good notice you had some years ago. You may get 
it from the fact that tomorrow they’re going to take down Ethel 
Barrymore s name and put up Lila King’s. I don’t know where 
your imagination is going to lead you, but when you’re ready, sit 
down with that dress and do anything you want—sing to your¬ 
self, maybe—while you’re altering it. Then we’ll have not Lila 
King, the actress, but Lila King, the elated woman. Who’s to stop 
you except the dumb director—from waltzing around the room 
with the dress? Who’s going to stop you? Not me!” 

Meisner turns to Dave, “Now we have the husband. ‘$ 19 . 95 .’ 
What does that mean?” 

Murder, Dave says. “She’s gone out behind my back and 
spent this huge amount of money.” 

“Go into the fact that you can’t afford it.” 

“We barely have enough money to pay the rent and the electric 
bill. We can hardly make ends meet, let alone have any money 
for extras like party dresses.” 

That s the foundation for building in you an emotional atti¬ 
tude which has to do with financial destruction. We won’t go too 
far into this scene, but set yourself up in here, then go outside. 
When you’re ready, come inside and act. Right? Has what I’ve 
said to you been clear?” 

They both nod. 

You should go out to different corners. Dave, make sure that 
she’s in here before you enter.” 

Lila and Dave leave-the room, closing the door. 

It s really very simple, isn’t it?” Meisner says. “It just takes a 
few years to learn.” 

After a few minutes Lila enters, takes the dress from the table 
and, holding it before her, admires her reflection in the full- 
length mirror against the wall. She begins to hum contentedly, 
then sits at the table to thread a needle. Dave enters suddenly and 
the scene begins. Three or four minutes pass before Meisner i 
stops them. I 

Let s talk about this. It’s all right, nothing wrong with it, but 
it s a question of quantity, not quality. What does that mean? 


91 


PREPARATION: "IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 


Quantity instead of quality. The quality of your behavior is good. 
I’m talking only about the beginning. It’s not full enough. I’ll 
show you what I mean. Dave, when you came in and saw her 
dancing around with the dress, had it made you want to tear 
yourself to pieces, because here’s the proof that she’s ruining you, 
I would have loved it. You follow? And Lila, if before he came 
in we saw you dancing like a fifteen-year-old girl, like your 
daughter, I would have loved that. Dave, unless I’m quite wrong 
—which is possible—to be disgusted, revolted and furious at 
somebody’s unreasonable behavior should not be difficult for 
you. Right or wrong?” 

“You’re right,” Dave says. 

“That’s what I was looking for, you follow? And Lila, to be like 
a fifteen-year-old girl dancing around with the dress as if you 
were the belle of the ball would, I think, come easily to you.” She 
nods in agreement. “That’s what I was looking for. But we’re at 
the beginning, and to begin with a full emotional inner life is 
difficult at best. I just want to show you the possibilities that are 
open to you. Both of you have always had reality in this scene. 
It never achieved the fullness it might have, but you always had 
emotions of the right quality. I’m talking about fullness at the 
beginning, that’s all. What I’m trying to establish today are the 
qualities of preparations that are fuller than simply knowing that 
you, Dave, are angry at her because she’s extravagant, or that 
you, Lila, are elated. That’s what I’m talking about.” 

December 12 

Ray and Rachael, a thin and pretty blond young woman who, like 
Anna, works as a model, are about to begin their scene. 

“Why do you come in?” Meisner asks Rachael. 

“I’m coming in to tell him—” 

“You don’t have to worry about that. The scene will take care 
of that. Where are you coming from?” 

“From my new lover’s place.” 

“How new?” . 

“Seven months.” 



92 ' — is'.-;--;.: ■ 

“Almost a record,” Meisner says, and the class laughs. “Okay, 
you’re coming from your lover of seven months. What can you 
invent, what can your imagination invent, that happened tonight 
to put you on cloud seven? You’ve got something?” 

Rachael nods. •• • 

“Personal to you? Right?” ■ 

She blushes and continues to nod. 

“Now, Ray; let’s take what I said to Joseph before. You’re 
deeply humiliated, like a child who has been publicly embar¬ 
rassed and scorned by all the other children, right? When you’re 
both ready, come in.” 

When they leave the room, Meisner says, “There’s been no 
problem in their being able to handle their script in an alive way, 
but now we’re talking about a different level. What’s the level?” 

“The level of preparation,” Vince says. 

“Preparation brings you to it,” Meisner says. 

“The personal level,” Rose Marie says. 

“Emotional honesty,” John adds. 

“Fullness!” Meisner exclaims. “Where are we moving?” 

“To a fuller emotional plan'e,” Beth says. 

After a few minutes the door opens, Ray enters and sits on the 
bed. Rachael comes in, the scene begins and they play it through 
to the end. 

“All right,” Meisner says, “that helped. The behavior was 
more meaningful than last time. Now, I want to try something. 
Rachael, I want you to go outside, and when you feel as if finally 
all your dreams are coming true, dance in! I don’t care what you 
do. Go outside and prepare for that.” 

“Okay,” Rachael says. “With or without the text?” 

“With the text,” Meisner says. “But Rachael, I want to see you 
at your most ecstatic. I don’t care if you get it from buckwheat 
cakes! And Ray, I want you to sit on that bed with your back to 
the door and cry and keep on crying until your heart breaks. I 
don’t care if you get it from the fact that your dog died. If you 
want to be private, go outside and then come back in.” 

Both leave in order to prepare. In a few minutes, they return 
and perform the scene again. 



93 


PREPARATION: "IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 

. t 

“This didn’t change as much with you, Ray, as it did with you” 
—Re looks at Rachael—“though it was rather slight. Look, Ray, 
are you sensitive to tears?” 

: “Do you mean, am I sensitive to somebody else crying?” 
“Why didn’t you cry?” 

“I don’t know. ...” 

■“Were you self-conscious?” 

“Somewhat. I think I was trying too hard. I think I felt I 
needed to succeed, and that was what was in my mind.” 

“You don’t need to succeed; you need to learn. Right?” 

Ray nods in agreement. 

“I said, ‘Cry.’ That’s a result. I don’t care if it’s because the 
waiter brought you fried eggs instead of scrambled. I wanted to 
see you break down, that’s all. And Rachael, I wanted to see you 
come in like Carmen. That’s what I was looking for.” 

“A dramatic change in the way the scene was going,” Ray says. 
“Something entirely different,” Meisner says. “Work on it. 
We’ll see what you do with it next time.” 


December 15 

“Let’s have Mister Roberts, ” Meisner says, and John and Ralph 
come forward and sit on two gray metal folding chairs in the 
middle of the classroom. “John, we know from the play that 
Ralph’s character is a pain in the ass, right? We know that you 
would do anything to squash him, right, and finally you’ve got 
something on him. What is it?” 

“I have a letter,” John says, “that proves to me that he fucked 
up.” 

: “ ‘No leave for the men. ’ How do you feel about that?” 

“How do I feel? Ecstatic!” 

“So sit behind your desk and enjoy your power,” Meisner says. 
“This is a scene about a cruel bastard whose greatest pleasure is 
to watch somebody electrocuted, and who’s getting his wish.” 

John moves his chair behind the long table and begins to ar¬ 
range into a neat pile some papers he has brought with him. 



94 


“Now, Ralph. Did I ever tell you about the ‘Magic If? This 
scene is ‘as if you’ve just come from the funeral of your three- 
year-old brother. In other words, a tragedy is occurring. Never 
mind that this scene is about the navy. Emotionally, a tragedy is 
occurring, you follow?” 

Ralph nods. 

“Go out and prepare. Johnny, you just sit there and tickle 
yourself with pleasure. That’s all. But go outside if you want to.” 

John starts to leave, and Meisner begins to speak again. 
“Haven’t you all had marvelous dreams in which you killed 
somebody? Dreams where you’ve taken revenge and killed some¬ 
body you hate?” 

John says, “No.” 

“Well, you’ll have to find a substitution for it.” 

John nods and leaves the room. 

Meisner looks at Rose Marie. 

“Suppose your best friend once said, ‘Rose Marie, give up 
acting. You haven’t got it.’ Now, you’ve just opened in a play in 
which you got all the notices and she got fired. Isn’t that a won¬ 
derful feeling?” - 

Rose Marie grins. 

“Are you beginning to see how this works?” Meisner asks, 
looking around the class. “Yes? But not unanimously. You 
wouldn’t give me that satisfaction, would you?” 

In a few minutes, John returns to his table and begins to read 
with pleasure a typed letter on top of his stack of papers. Ralph 
knocks on the door and John tells him to enter and take a chair. 
Ralph sits before John’s desk like a small boy brought up before 
the principal. His preparation is very full, and as the scene pro¬ 
gresses, he becomes increasingly desperate before the obdurate 
cruelty of his superior. With tears in his eyes, he pleads for the 
order canceling the leave of his men to be rescinded. At the end, 
when, through a twist of the plot, the captain is forced to rescind 
the order, Ralph heaves a sigh of relief and cries openly with joy. 

'That was good,” Meisner says. “You see what preparation 
does for you? Ralph, your emotion was lovely.” 

“Thank you,” Ralph says. He is clearly pleased and smiles even 
as he blows his nose and wipes his eyes with his handkerchief. 



95 


H PREPARATION: "IN THE HAREM OF MY HEAD" 

“How’s that for a Christmas present?” Meisner asks. 

Ralph nods and the class laughs. 

II 

Meisner stands on the corner of Fifty-fourth Street and First 
Avenue looking for a cab to take him to his apartment. 

“Dave concerns me,” he says. “There’s a level of emotional 
reserve in his work that isn’t productive in an actor. It’s as though 
he searches for reasons for not becoming involved, for not acting 
fully.’ Restraint is a virtue, but reticence in an actor isn’t. This 
is a problem he’s going to have to grapple with. Of course I love 
Sturm und Drang. If I go to a restaurant and there’s no salt on the 
table, they have to carry me to my bed. I wish a bit of that could 
rub off onto Dave.” 

A fine mist begins to fall, and there are no cabs in sight. 

“Ray, though, is developing nicely,” he says. “So is Rachael. 
They tell me that he was studying to become a Jesuit but was 
defrocked for drinking the communion wine. That’s probably 
not true. He’s intelligent. I can always count on him to summa¬ 
rize accurately whatever point I’m struggling to make. Of all of 
them, he would make the best teacher, I think.” 

A cab turns onto the avenue and Meisner raises his cane to 
hail it. 

“So he couldn’t break down. That’s not important at this early 
stage. As I said, preparation is really very simple. It just takes a 
few years to learn.” 

The cab pulls up and Meisner gets in. 





Improvisation 

Let us try to learn some of the characteristics of day-dreaming. 
We can begin by saying that happy people never make 
fantasies, only unsatisfied ones. Unsatisfied wishes are the 
driving power behind fantasies; every separate fantasy contains 
the fulfillment of a wish, and improves on unsatisfactory 
reality. The impelling wishes vary according to the sex, 
character and circumstances of the creator; they may be easily 
divided, however, into two principal groups. Either they are 
ambitious wishes, serving to exalt the person creating them, or 
they are erotic. In young women erotic wishes dominate the 
fantasies almost exclusively, for their ambition is generally 
comprised in their erotic longings; in young men egoistic and 
ambitious wishes assert themselves plainly enough alongside 
their erotic desires. But we will not lay stress on the 
distinction between those two trends; we prefer to emphasize 
the fact that they are often united. In many altar-pieces the 
portrait of the donor is to be found in one corner of the 
picture; and in the greater number of ambitious day-dreams, 
too, we can discover a woman in some corner, for whom the 
dreamer performs all his heroic deeds and at whose feet all his 
triumphs are to be laid. . . . 

—Sigmund Freud, “The Relation of the Poet to Day-dreaming’’* 


February 6 

“Vincent just asked me a peculiar question; ‘When do we begin on 
character work?’ Well, in one way you never begin on character 
work. In another way, you’ve already begun to do characters be¬ 
cause character comes from how you feel about something. So 
every time you got up and did an exercise, you were playing a 
character, though the word wasn’t mentioned. For the most part, 
character is an emotional thing. The internal part of character is 

Collected in On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, 
Literature , Love, Religion, selected by Benjamin Nelson (New York, Evanston, 
and London: Harper & Row, 1958), 47-48. 


IMPROVISATION 


defined by how you feel about something. If you go into a clothing 
store, for example, and see a suit that you like very much but can’t 
afford, and you buy it anyway—what kind of person are you?” 

“Impulsive,” Joseph says. 

“Impulsive,” Meisner repeats. “Or foolhardy. That would be 
the essence of one internal component of the character. Let s take 
a difficult Strindberg character like Miss Julie. Her wish to de¬ 
stroy men because of her hatred of them also makes her want to 
look beautiful so that she can entice them into a trap and destroy 
their egos. Here are two components of character: the inner com¬ 
ponent, which determines the kind of person she is, a destroyer 
of men, which is dictated by Strindberg and which the actress 
intuitively extracts from the written text; and an outer compo¬ 
nent, the external portrait epitomizing her wish to be beautiful. 

“What about accents?" Joseph asks. “Are they inner or outer 
components of character?” 

“The man who recently arrived in America from France might 
have a heavy, distinctly French accent. But if the author tells us 
that he has spoken English for most of his life, he might have only 
a trace of an accent. But neither circumstance would mitigate the 
fact that at heart he is French: cosmopolitan, witty, cynical in love 
—whatever the idea of being French might instinctively mean to 
you. At this early stage of our work, you must rely on your 
instinctive reaction to the playwright’s text. At this point charac¬ 
ter is justified by your inner response to what you read in the 
text. But remember, an accent is not basic and organic to the 
character. It is an external attribute, like red hair or a gold tooth. 
The basic thing is an emotional essence—‘cosmopolitan, cyni¬ 
cal.’ That’s the source of character.” 

He looks at Vincent for a moment. “You look like a disap¬ 
pointed character to me, Vince, because you’re not hearing what 
you want to hear.” 

Vince starts to speak but stops. 

“Look,” Meisner says, “if somebody says to two other people, 
‘Do you want to drink some unbelievably strong Japanese sake?’ 
And the first guy says emphatically, ‘Yeah! I do!’ And the other 
guy says, ‘Yes.’ Pause. Pause. ‘I do.’ Their words are the same but 
are they the same, or do they have two different characters? 



98 


Vince? You started me on this, so I’m asking you. One character 
you can define as being what?” 

Impulsive,” Vince says. 

“Impulsive. And the other?” 

“Cautious.” 

Well, that’s how you establish character. This will become 
clearer when we begin to work with the material from Edgar Lee 
Masters Spoon River Anthology. Vince, I’m glad you asked me that 
question. I didn’t mean to start this way, but I guess I’m an 
adjustable character.” 


Here s the outline of an exercise that everybody is going to do 
1 wo people are living together, not necessarily sexually. One 
person has an independent activity, and the other one comes in 
rom some situation which requires a vivid preparation. I said 
at you re living together, so there’s no question of knocking on 
e door, but you can live separately if you want to. That’s your 
choice. That s the exercise. Two people, one of whom has an inde¬ 
pendent activity and the other of whom comes home from some 
situation which he has created and for which he has bre- 
pared. The process is one of working off each other, moment to 
moment That s essentially the improvisation. Ray, who’s your 
partner? y 

“Rose Marie.” 

All right, come up here, both of you. You’re living together 
an , Ray ’ you’re at home. That means you must have a genuine 
independent activity. It doesn’t have anything to do with her— 
its entirely yours—and that’s what you’ll be doing. Have you 
something you can do?” y 

“I have a script here which I could memorize for an audition ” 
Kay says. , ’ 

Good. Now, Rose Marie, you have just come from a situation 
of your own invention, out of which you get a preparation. 

reparation is self-stimulation. Your nature, your instinct, dic¬ 
tates the kind of preparation you want. If you’d just gotten a 
great part m a wonderful show, the self-stimulation that is your 
preparation could be that you’re divinelyhappy. It could also be 



IMPROVISATION 7 7 

that you’re mystified by how this wonderful situation came 
about. Aren’t you lucky?” 

Rose Marie nods. - 

“So to begin with* we have Ray at home immersed in his 
independent activity, and then Rose Marie comes home from 
some invented situation out of which she has extracted a prepara¬ 
tion. Then you work off each other’s behavior moment to mo¬ 
ment. Are there any questions?” 

“Sandy,” John asks, “are you saying that when we come up 
with a make-believe situation for ourselves, we should try to 
make it so real that it can move us emotionally?” 

“You must.” 

“Okay.” 

“Let’s start. Rose Marie, where’s your hat and coat?” 

Rose Marie takes her coat and purse from a chair and starts to 

leave the room. . . 

“Ray, where are you going to do your independent activity? 

“Here,” Ray says, “in my house.” 

“It’s her house, too.” 

“Yeah,” Rose Marie says. “I don’t have to knock.” 

“Who are you to each other?” 

“Should we decide that together?” Ray asks. Is it necessary for 
me to know what she thinks our relationship is?” 

“It’s necessary for you to know if you’re living together as man 
and wife or brother and sister or whatever.” 

Rose Marie asks, “In an exercise like this, is it better to come 
in with a feeling or to come in with a purpose?” 

“If you were just fired from your dream part and came in fully 
prepared and determined to write that director a letter, you could 
do that. Or you could come in just riding your preparation.”, 

“Just because we live together,” Rose Marie says, doesn t 
mean that when I come home I’ll find the other person at home 
too. I mean, I could come in and find an empty apartment. 

“That is correct.” 

“Along this line,” Ray says, “I wanted to ask if the preparation 
that the person who’s entering uses to self-stimulate himself 
emotionally can be connected to the person who’s in the 
room?” 



-too 

“It’s much better at first if it’s not,” Meisner says.“Come on; || 
let’s see what you do.” m 

Ray and Rose Marie whisper together briefly, and when she || 
leaves the room he sits at the long table with his script and begins s|| 
to memorize it. After a few minutes she enters and they perform | 
the exercise as Meisner has outlined it. -j 

“Okay, how was that?” Meisner asks. “No one wants to offer ’’i 
their opinion?” a| 

“Pretty good.” * if 

“You’d say that, Joseph? Pretty good? Why?” . j 

“Because her emotion was truthful and he was aware and 
working off it.” 

“What was her character?” IS 

“Angry.” : | 

“Tempestuous, I think. What was his character?” 

“Helpful?” ; .j 

“Right. Let’s have another. Who wants to go?” ?$ 

Ray and Rose Marie return to their chairs. '?§ 

“Incidentally, Ray, your independent activity wasn’t interest¬ 
ing enough.” / • 

“I just made it up when you called on us because I hadn’t come 
prepared with one.” ' . ■ 

“How could you have made it more interesting?” 

“I could have learned the speech with a particular accent out 
loud, or I could have done it in a .particular rhythm and I had to 
walk in that rhythm—” | 

“If that’s not too bizarre, you could have done that, I suppose. y;f 
Otherwise, you were just a plain memorizer—a little too plain. 

You must learn to'make your independent activity more involv- : 
ing and interesting to you. Who can tell me what this exercisers | 
all about?” 

John raises his hand. “It’s being totally involved in an activity 
or coming in with a full preparation, and then reacting honestly 
to an outside source and going along from moment to moment.” 
“Who’s the outside source?” 

“Well, the activity could be, but also your partner.” 

“Yes, it’s your partner. What does it mean to use what exists? 
Joseph?” 





ft IMPROVISATION 1 0 1 

“To allow what exists to affect you rather than working out of 
your head—what you think should exist—so that you’re working 
from an actual moment.” 

“That’s about right,” Meisner says reflectively. “That’s about 
right.” He adjusts the microphone attached to his eyeglasses. 
“You see, this exercise adds another dimension. The actor doing 
the independent activity is now not just being interrupted. 
Rather, he is confronted by his partner, whose inner life, because 
of his preparation, is compelling and persuasive. The partner 
enters the room with a full emotion, and the two of them react 
to each other moment to moment.” 

“Let’s talk about this. It’s nearer to what’s wanted,” Meisner says. 

John and Rachael stop improvising and sit down together on 
the bed against the wall. 

“John, where did you come from?” 

“I came from seeing someone on the street.” 

“Seeing who?” 

“A writer whose play I want to produce, and he’s very particu¬ 
lar. It’s almost impossible to get his permission, but he agreed to 
give me thirty minutes of his time to tell him my ideas to see if 
we agree.” 

“Okay. Listen, everybody. It’s became you met a playwright, 
and it’s because he has a play you’d like to produce, and it’s became 
he said he’d come and talk to you: How do you feel?" 

“I feel excited.” 

“Then you could have had more excitement, you see? The 
more you have, the more she would be stopped from doing her 
independent activity. Because you didn’t pick a situation which 
is provocative enough to you, you didn’t bring in a full enough 
emotion. What’s that mean?” 

“It means that I didn’t generate a real, honest, strong feeling 
that overwhelmed me,” John says. 

“And what would you need to get that?” 

“A better situation that moves me.” 

“And then you improvise.” 

Ray raises his hand. “When you say ‘improvise,’ do you mean 




102 


that we should be doing less repetition and more . . . talking, so 
that it sounds more like dialogue? I know what you mean by 
improvisation, but what I’m asking is does it lead to something 
that^sounds more like dialogue and less like repetition?” 

; “° ka y- The other question I have is that the relationship be¬ 
tween the two people doesn’t seem to matter at this point, except 
that it removes the knock and spontaneously affects the attitude 
they have toward each other ” 

“Yes.” 


( Other than that, it’s just like what we’ve been doing?” 

Yes. This improvisation is the same thing as the exercises you 
have been doing all along, except that it adds a stronger, fuller 

preparation. What have I added to the exercise that you did 
before Christmas?” 

You ve added that we know who we are to each other when 
we enter,” Bette says. 

And I’ve added that you come from a strong situation which 
gives you a springboard for a full preparation.” 

You have to have a story, as well as your emotional prepara¬ 
tion, right?” Ray asks. “Earlier, emotional preparation was any¬ 
thing you imagined to set yourself off emotionally, but now we 
have to give it . . .” 

Justification,” Meisner says. 

“Yeah. So that I’m able to say that the emotion I came into the 
room^with is the result of something that just happened to me.” 


“Thatstrengthens it,” Rose Marie says, “doesn’t it?” 


“It makes it more like a play,” Ray adds. 

No, it makes you fuller. You must give your self-stimulation 
more of a chance to be deeper and bigger. What’s that mean?” 

JJon t put limitations on your emotional behavior,” Rose 
Marie says. 

Certainly not. That’s right.” 

“It’s difficult to do because we’ve been trained since we were 
children to be restrained emotionally-at least some of us have 
—and every day we’re constantly aware of what our proper 



IMPROVISATION 


103 


limitations are. We always know what our boundaries are and it’s 
difficult to break them, even in an acting class. But emotional 
freedom gets easier when you try to go along the path your inner 
life is sending you.” 

“I’m glad you said that,” Meisner says and the class laughs. 


February 9 

“Let’s talk about this. I liked it.” 

Joseph sighs in relief. 

“I could wish that it were fuller on your part, Joseph. What 
would have made it fuller?” 

“A preparation that was fuller.” 

“But what preparation would make it more provocative to 
you?” 

“Something that was more specific and meaningful to me.” 
“What were those two word's?” 

“Specific and meaningful.” 

“That’s right.” 

“I had it, but then I lost it.” 

“That’s very possible, but I don’t criticize you for that. You’re 
well on your way towards preparation, and now it needs to be 
genuinely fuller, more forceful. Do you understand?” 

“Yes.” , 

“In Hamlet, in the beginning . . . I’m talking badly today. Can 
you understand me?” 

“Yes,” say the students. 

“In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is in a deep depression. 
What causes it?” 1 ■ . • 

“The death of his father,” Joseph says in his quiet, deep voice. 
“His father was murdered, right?” 

■ “By his uncle.” 

“That adds to it. If somebody had swatted a fly on his desk and 
left it there, would that cause a deep depression?” 

“No.” 

“I don’t think so either.” 

“Let me ask you a question about Hamlet specifically,” Joseph 



104 

says. “In the beginning of the play he has that speech about his 
mother, the one that starts, ‘O! that this too too solid flesh would 
melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew. . . .’ It’s about his 
mother marrying his uncle, his father’s murderer. What would 
one use for a preparation?” 

“I don’t know,” Meisner says. “I don’t know who’s playing it.” 

After a pause Joseph says, “It’s just what works for you, then?” 

“That’s right. Work for a fuller preparation. You know, one 
thing that’s constant in a brick wall is that a brick is a brick is 
a brick. What’s thanmean?” 

“It means that it’s never anything other than a brick,” Bette, 
Joseph’s partner, says. 

“It’s that the basis of the performance is the fundamental real¬ 
ity that you had today. But instead of a pint of acting, I’m looking 
for a legitimate gallon.” He looks at Bette, who still sits at the 
long table. Cards with printing on them are spread before her. 
“Why were you playing with those cards? How much were you 
going to win?” 

Bette says, “I don’t know whether I do this right. I have a 
whole scenario planned which' is very specific and personal to 
me, and I’m afraid it might sound corny to anybody else.” 

“Twenty-five dollars is enough.” 

“Oh, no, it was—” 

“More complicated?” 

“Maybe I should tell you, because maybe it isn’t the right kind 
of thing.” 

“Tell me.” 

“Okay. In my imaginary situation I’m doing volunteer work 
at Sloan-Kettering,' the cancer hospital. I work with older kids, 
and I befriended a fourteen-year-old boy who said that his dream 
was to be an actor. But a lot of kids there aren’t going anywhere. 
But there was some hope for him, and I’ve just found out that he’s 
not going anywhere either. I promised him that when I came in 
on Monday we were going to recite Shakespeare—these cards 
have passages from Shakespeare on them—” 

“It’s too complicated.” 

Bette pauses to think for a moment. “What if I used these cards 
to make a house?” 



IMPROVISATION 


105 


“At Sloan-Kettering? Learning how to do it to distract them?” 

“Do you think that’s stupid?” Bette says. 

“No! I was at Sloan-Kettering!” 

“But you think my earlier reasons were too complicated?” 

“Yes.” 

“Because they get too jumbled up?” 

“You've got to get a reaction from inside yourself, and the 
more complicated it is, the more difficult it is to get involved 
emotionally.” 

“So I can get more self-stimulation by just showing the child 
how to build a house of cards?” 

“Involvement. You can get more involvement for yourself by 
knowing that you’re doing it to entertain a dying child. Simplic¬ 
ity is essential. Don’t clutter yourself. All I have to say to myself 
is ‘Hitler,’ and something is there. Do you understand that? It’s 
because I’m Spanish.” 


“Bruce, do you remember hearing Ray ask if in this form of the 
improvisation the repetition becomes less mindless and more 
reasonable, so that the result is more like human dialogue?” 

In frustration, Bruce runs both hands through his thinning 
hair. “Yes, but I couldn’t seem to do it.” 

“You couldn’t seem to do it? Wait a minute. What color is your 
shirt?” 

“It’s maroon.” 

“That wasn’t repetition. I asked you what color the shirt was 
and you told me. You didn’t repeat, did you?” 

“No, I didn’t repeat. I just answered the question.” 

“What color are your socks?” 

“Black.” 

“Do you have a name other than Bruce?” 

“Sure.” 

“What is it?” 

“Patrick.” 

“Did you repeat? Why do you say that you can’t answer a 
question? You just did it!” 

“I don’t know. I just felt stuck.” 



106 


“It’s all right. What’s the color of these walls?” 

“Yellow.” 

“Do you like that color?” 

“It’s okay.” 

“What color would you prefer?” 

Bruce pauses a moment to reflect. “Gray.” 

“Did you think about that?” 

“For a second.” . . 

“And then when you’d thought about it, you answered, right? 
So when somebody asks you a question you can answer it, can’t 
you?” 

“Yes. But when Lila kept asking me in the exercise what was 
wrong, the answer should have been, ‘I’m upset.’ But I thought 
I wasn’t supposed to reveal what my preparation was.” 

“Look, you’re going to ask me a question, and I’m going to 
show you a way of answering by not using the direct truth. How 
old am I? How old do you think I am?” 

Bruce bursts into laughter. 

“What’s so funny?” 

“About fifty?” Bruce asks. 

“Right!” Meisner replies, and the class laughs..“Bruce, how old 
are you? Lie to me.” 

“Twenty-eight.” 

“You don’t look it,” Meisner says and Bruce laughs again. 
“What’s funny about that?” 

“It’s such a lie!” ' 

“What’s a lie?” 

“Twenty-eight.” . 

“That’s a lie?” ’ 

“Yeah.” 

“You see, we’re having a conversation, aren’t we? That’s the 
direction in which the improvisation exercise is going. Do you 
understand?” 

Bruce nods. 

“Lila,” Meisner says to Bruce’s partner, “the same problem 
exists with you. What does it mean to respond reasonably?” 

“To respond reasonably?” 




IMPROVISATION 


107 


“What time is it? What’s the logical response?” 

“I don’t know.”' 

“Why don’t you know? You’re wearing a watch. Why don’t 
you look at it?” 

“It’s about five-ten.” 

“That kind of indecision is no good for this exercise. What 
should you have said?” 

“Five-ten.” 

“Right. Now, if I say, ‘What time is it?,’ what’s your .repetitive, 
theatrical answer?” 

“My theatrical answer?” 

“In this exercise.” 

“I’m confused,” Lila says, and her large blue eyes scan his face 
anxiously. 

“Your repetitive, theatrical answer to my saying, ‘What time 
is it?’ is for you to say, ‘What time is it?’ Then I say, ‘What time 
is it?’ and you say, ‘What time is it?’ and I say, ‘You’re getting 
annoyed,’ and you say, ‘I’m getting annoyed,’ and I say, ‘Yes, 
you’re getting annoyed,’ and you say, ‘Yes, I’m getting annoyed,’ 
and I say, ‘Yes, that’s right, you’re annoyed,’ and you say, ‘Yes, 
that’s right, I’m annoyed!’ Now, is that dialogue reasonable, or 
is it repetitive and, in the sense of this exercise, theatrical?” 

“Theatrical.” . 

“Yes. In the beginning the mindless repetition of the basic 
exercise had value. It eliminated a need for you to think and to 
write dialogue out of your head in order to keep talking—as if 
acting were talking, which it is not. And the illogical nature of 
the dialogue opened you up to the impulsive shifts, in your in¬ 
stinctual behavior caused by what was being done to you by your 
partner, which can lead to real emotion. This is fundamental to 
good acting. Now I’m saying we have moved beyond the funda¬ 
mental. Now it’s possible to respond reasonably. So if your 
partner asks you what time it is, for God’s sake look at your 
watch and tell him! And if he has the temerity to ask you how 
old you are, you have my permission to lie to him through your 
teeth!” 



* 


108 


February 13 

Sarah sits on the bed against the wall, intently reading a book. 
Suddenly, with an explosive burst, the door slams open and Vin¬ 
cent hurtles into the room. Under an open gray cardigan he 
wears the same T-shirt with bright pink lettering on it which he 
wore on the first day of class. He stands breathing heavily for a 
moment and then quickly closes the door and begins to barricade 
it with a chest of drawers. “Good God,” Sarah exclaims, “what’s 
going on?” Vincent ignores her question and begins to stack first 
one chair and then another onto the chest. 

Meisner whispers to Ralph for a moment. Ralph nods, and 
leaves the room quietly by the back door. Vincent is now at¬ 
tempting to hide, and crouches between the head of the bed on 
which Sarah sits and the wall. He continues to breathe in an 
exaggerated, theatrical way. Suddenly there is a sharp rap on the 
door, then another, then a third. • 

Meisner raises his hand and stops the exercise. “How come, 
Vince, when there was a knock at the door, nothing happened to 
you? But you came in like gangbusters. How come? Who was 
chasing you?” 

“I have no idea who he was. Some guy on the subway.” 

“Why was he chasing you?” 

“I don’t know. He was crazy. I stepped on his foot and he ran 
after me all the way saying, ‘I’m going to kill your mother-fuckin’ 
ass.’ ” 

“Too general,” Meisner says firmly. “Not specific. And mean¬ 
ingless. You were playing a melodrama. If you had come in here 
because a cop was on your tail, the knock would have meant 
something.” ' • 

“You mean not wanting to get cut up wasn’t enough,” Vince 
says defensively. 

“But what happened to you? Nothing happened to you except 
an assumed fear. You were playing a drama, being chased by a 
guy with a, knife. Was that it? That would be acceptable if it were 
more specific and you had an emotion. But when the knock on 
the door came, nothing happened to you. So it had no reality, did 
it?” 



IMPROVISATION 


■109 


“I see what you’re saying,” Vince says quietly. 

“What about you, Sarah?” 

“I didn’t know what was going on.” 

“Did it ever occur' to you that maybe he was crazy?” 

“Yes, because when I asked him what was wrong, he wouldn’t 
answer me. He just hid.” 

“You see, the truth wasn’t in this. A melodramatic situation 
was being indicated, but nothing happened to you, do you fol¬ 
low?” 

“Yeah,” says Vince. 

“What did I say?” 

“You said that what I was doing was not real. It was an indica¬ 
tion of what I thought being frightened and being afraid should 
be.” 

“Why are you angry?” Meisner asks. 

“Because I told you that I knew!” 

“How can I take that for granted unless you’re more explicit?” 
Meisner asks. 

Vincent shrugs his shoulders as if he wants to drop the subject. 

“I should have used that, right?” Sarah asks. 

“You should have used the fact that there was something illogi¬ 
cal or untruthful in his behavior, yes.” 

Vincent shifts his weight from his right leg to his left. 

“Let’s assume that Sarah is your sister and you share an apart¬ 
ment. Why would it have been better, Vince, if you’d come home 
after finding out that your girl was going to marry some guy with 
a lot of money? Why would that be better?” 

“Because ... I don’t know.” 

“Is it human? Is it in you? The disappointment, the humilia¬ 
tion, whatever it is, would that be in you? One can imagine that 
if you had that, you’d come in and go sit in the corner because 
she’d just made a jackass out of you. Do you see?” 

“Are you saying that in a circumstance like that you say to 
yourself, ‘How does that affect me? It affects me like this.’ ” He 
puckers his face into a pout. “And then you come in doing that?” 

“No. It affects you, and then you come in and do whatever your 
impulses let you do.” 

“I understand exactly what you said. I’ll try to do that.” 



110 


Do you understand what I mean when I say that this was a 
general, melodramatic situation and that you were indicating' 1 ” 

“Yeah.” . 

“Sarah, you didn’t get anything specific from him except curi¬ 
osity?” ; • : ..... . 

“Actually, I did, but I didn’t—” 

“What?” ... . V 

Well, I didn’t feel that it was real.” 

“That’s what I’m telling you!” - 

“And I didn’t comment on it.” 

You’re too polite, and in acting politeness will get you no¬ 
where! Look, find in yourselves those human things which are 
universal. Don t act out what you see on television! All we 
needed here was a posse coming through the door!” He pauses 
for a moment. “What if you were a kid and you came home from 
school much earlier than usual, and you told your mother that 
the school was closed because there was a big fire and you almost 
got burned? Now, that’s a lie! What makes your mother believe 
it? What makes her believe that you’re telling the truth?” 

Specifics? Bette asks. “You'tell her specific things that hap¬ 
pened.” . ‘ " 1 

Meisner says, “The playwright would give you that. What 
would make you a convincing liar?” 

“Your behavior,” says Joseph. 

“What part of your behavior?” 

“If you believe it—” 

“Your emotional behavior. If you go like this,” and he puffs 
lightly on his fingers, “that’s not going to do it.” 

“If you walk in sobbing it might,” Bette says. 

It s the reality of the emotion which makes the lie convinc¬ 
ing,” Meisner says. “I could say more about that, but I don’t want 
to now.” 


Joseph, what you had was very good, clear and sensitive. It 
needed to be fuller. It needed to be more personal, which would 
have made it fuller. Why were you writing that letter?” 



IMPROVISATION 


111 


“I just learned that someone I loved, my aunt, had died. I 
thought it was pretty personal.” 

“But you didn’t let go. You started out well, but then it began 
to wane, until it had the reflection of a mood. How could you 
have made it fuller? I’ll tell you: if it had something personal to 
you which had rocked you.” 

“There were moments when it got away from me, yes. But it 
came back as well. It came and went, is what I’m saying.” 

“It should have started on a more driving level.” Meisner turns 
to Bette, Joseph’s partner. “That was nice: sensitive to him, sim¬ 
ple, true, with content. Where did you come from?” 

“I’d just spoken to my agent, who told me that the other girl 
who’s up for the same part is going to take another job. The part 
I want is ninety percent in the bag for me.” 

“Then that should have made you ecstatic!” 

“I was ecstatic, But I was also afraid. I didn’t want to blow it 
by being too excited. I’m very superstitious that way.” 

“You should try it anyway. Otherwise you’re saying, ‘I want 
to be proper.’ Don’t be proper! Joseph was proper. It was very 
nice, it was sensitive and true, but it wasn’t full enough.” 

“I don’t quite understand,” Ray says. “You use the word full 
a lot. Sometimes it sounds to me that you mean it as a synonym 
for deeper, and sometimes for larger.” 

“Not larger, deeper.” 

“Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the actor is going to be 
any bigger than he already is?” 

Meisner nods. 

“So Joseph could use the fact of his aunt’s dying,” Rose Marie 
says, “but he should have made it more personal to him, like she 
was the one who raised him since he was two years old, or—” 

“Or,” Meisner says, “that he was responsible for her death. If 
he’d been a medical student and given her a pill which was 
experimental and it killed her, that would, make it fuller.” 

He pauses a moment while the class absorbs his point. 

“Originally my preparation was going to be that I got the job,” 
Bette says finally. “I was going to come in crazy, wild and happy! 
But I have trouble getting there.” 





112 

“Take your time,” Meisner says. “Take your time.” 

“But I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.” 

“Try it!” And after a pause, “Try it \” 

February 16 

“I’m in a terrible mood today and I’m going to take it out on you. 
Why should I be masochistic? You know, most of you have stud¬ 
ied with other teachers—I should say ‘mis-studied’ with other 
teachers—and that doesn’t make our problem any easier.” He 
looks at Scott Roberts. “Who isn’t here?” 

“I believe everybody is here.” 

“What?” 

“I believe everybody is here. I was just going over the list.” 

“Your diction is awful!” 

“I’m sorry,” Scott says. “I believe everybody is here. Yes, ev¬ 
erybody is here.” 

Meisner adjusts the microphone before continuing. “Do you 
honestly think—and I mean honestly like what exists in the Bible 
and no place else—that you’re learning?” 

There is a chorus of yesses from the students. 

“Don’t flatter me!” Meisner exclaims. 

“I’m not,” Anna says. 

“How many people think they’re not learning?” He looks 
around the room. 

“What was the original question, Sandy?” Joseph asks. “I 
didn’t understand it.” 

“Repeat it!” he says to Rose Marie. 

“Do you think—honestly as in the Bible—that you’re learning 
. . . something here in class, I guess he means.” 

“That’s the question.” 

“Raise your hand if you’re not,” Rose Marie says. 

“I don’t see any hands,” Meisner says, his eyes scanning the 
two rows of seated students. Slowly, but with sureness, Vincent 
raises his right hand into the air. After a moment, Meisner says 
to the class, “Do you think this technique is for everyone?” There 



IMPROVISATION 


113 

is a pause. “I don’t, and that’s right, Vince, you’re not learning. 

I suggest you pack it in here and go find another teacher more 
to your liking.” 

Vincent’s hand drops to his side, “Okay,” he says quietly and 
shrugs his shoulders. 

“I think you should leave right now!” Meisner exclaims. Vince 
nods stiffly, as if in shock, and then proceeds to collect his coat 
from under his seat and stand up. There is a pause while he works 
his way to the aisle and begins to cross the acting area, moving 
toward the door. At midpoint Meisner asks, “Who was your 
partner?” 

“Sarah,” Vince says. 

“Sarah? Who can take on two partners?” 

Ray raises his hand. 

“Ray, you’ll give it a try?” Meisner asks. 

Ray nods. 

“Then work with Sarah.” 

Vincent stands frozen in the middle of the room. He slowly 
raises his right hand again, this time in a kind of salute. “Thank 
you.” 

“Okay,” Meisner says with a wave of his right hand. “So long 
and good luck.” 

Vincent turns, walks through the open door and is gone. 
“Okay, Lila and Bruce, let’s go!” 

The two students stand and move onto the acting area and the 
class resumes. 

II 

“It kills me when I have to ask a student to leave my class,” 
Meisner says as he opens the door to his small, one-bedroom 
apartment. “But when I see that he cannot learn what I have to 
teach, and that his presence has become detrimental to other 
students who are learning, then, as a responsible teacher, I must 
do it. I usually write to say that I regret that in my opinion I am 
not the right teacher for him or I have Scott call him to explain 



114 

the same thing—whichever is less painful for both of us. The 
theatrics of this afternoon are not the norm.” 

Meisner stiffly removes the heavy wool coat with a fur collar, 
his protection against the icy New York winter. “I’ve decided to 
ask Philip and Bruce to leave too.” 

He walks slowly with the aid of his cane into the living room 
of the apartment and perches stiffly on a special high-backed 
chair with long legs that he had built for his use after his hip 
operation. 

“Philip is a sweet kid—too sweet perhaps to survive as an actor 
—although he wants to be one desperately. Scott told me that he 
works in some kind of a cafeteria that stays open all night. He 
works then so that his afternoons are free to take classes and go 
to auditions. It’s clear to me that he wants to act but that his 
inhibitions—I blame it on his parents—have crippled him. I seri¬ 
ously doubt that he will ever become a successful actor. 

“In a funny way, Bruce is quite similar. Although he’s been in 
this business for twenty years, like Lila—who God knows I 
should get rid of too—he has no technique. Instead, he has ac¬ 
cumulated an awesome number of superficial tricks in an at¬ 
tempt, I suppose, to make himself feel more secure. But the result 
is an intense self-consciousness that cuts him off from his partner 
and the possibility of transcending his own scared self. 

“Acting is a scary, paradoxical business. One of its central 
paradoxes is that in order to succeed as an actor you have to lose 
consciousness of your own self in order to transform yourself 
into the character in the play. It’s not easy, but it can be done. 
I’m only sorry that I cannot teach Bruce, Philip and Vincent— 
and so many others'—how to do it.” 




More on Preparation: “Quick As Flame” 

. . . In the great scene of the third act of the “Merchant of 
Venice,” Shylock has to come on in a state of intense rage 
and grief at the flight of his daughter. Now it is obviously 
a great trial for the actor to “strike twelve at once.” He is 
one moment calm in the green-room, and the next he has 
to appear on the stage with his whole nature in an uproar. 
Unless he has a very mobile temperament, quick as flame, 
he cannot begin this scene at the proper state of white 
heat. Accordingly, we see actors in general come bawling 
and gesticulating, but leaving us unmoved because they are 
not moved themselves. Macready it is said, used to spend 
some minutes behind the scenes, lashing himself into an 
imaginative rage by cursing sotto voce, and shaking 
violently a ladder fixed against the wall. To by-standers the 
effect must have been ludicrous. But to the audience the 
actor presented himself as one really agitated. He had 
worked himself up to the proper pitch of excitement which 
would enable him to express the rage of Shylock. 

—George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting* 


February 20 


“The text is like a canoe,” Meisner says, “and the river on 
which it sits is the emotion. The text floats on the river. If the 
water of the river is turbulent, the words will come out like a 
canoe on a rough river. It all depends on the flow of the river 
which is your emotion. The text takes on the character of your 
emotion. That’s what this exercise is for: how to let the river of 
your emotion flow untrammeled, with the words floating on 
top of it.” 

Bruce runs his hands nervously through his thinning hair. 


London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1875, 44. 




When told he was dropped from the class, Bruce asked for an¬ 
other chance and Meisner reluctantly agreed. 

“This is a very significant exercise for you because your ten¬ 
dency, Bruce, is to sit on your emotion and hide it. You had a 
moment before you began, before Lila came in, when I thought 
you were going to sob. But then you squelched it!” 

“It’s hard to let go,” Bruce says. 

Meisner waves his hand impatiently. “Begin working on this 
problem by allowing yourself to overdo it. You should do what 
I do when I practice diving in the Caribbean. I just go! I know 
it’s not easy. It’s formidable. Just go! And don’t give yourself a 
reason why you shouldn’t! If you want to throw yourself on the 
floor and chew a leg of that table, it’s fine with me. It’s undig¬ 
nified, it’s unmanly, it’s ungentlemanly—but it’s very good for 
your acting!” / 

“I’ll try,” Bruce says. 

“I don’t care when you learn the lines,” Meisner says. “And 
don’t try to learn them in relation to the emotion you think you 
should have. First build a canoe and then put it on the water, and 
whatever the water does, the canoe follows. The text is the canoe, 
but you must begin by putting the emphasis on the stormy river. 
I can’t be any clearer than that.” He turns toward the seated class 
and continues. “We’re not talking about a finished performance; 
we’re talking about an exercise. When Horowitz plays scales he 
isn’t concerned either with Beethoven or an audience. To change 
the metaphor, I cannot train baseball players who only know 
how to bunt!” 

Bruce and Lila return to their seats, and Meisner waits'a mo¬ 
ment before continuing. “Does this upset you, this class? We’re 
dealing with a very mysterious subject.” 

“A little bit, yes,” John says. “It’s upsetting to see how our lives 
inhibit us. It seems horrible that we’re so conditioned to keep 
everything in. Now, all of a sudden, it’s our job to let everything 
out.” 

“That, my friends, is why we’re all here,” Meisner says. 




MORE ON PREPARATION: “QUICK AS FLAME" 


117 


“What play is this?” Meisner asks Joseph and Bette. 

“All Summer Long, ” Joseph replies. 

“What happens before this scene begins?” 

“Our little brother has seen two dogs mating and Bette has told 
him the facts of life.” 

“Such as?” Meisner asks. 

“What mating’s all about,” Joseph says. “And I’ve taken him 
under my wing, trying to educate him about life and the world—” 

“You see how intellectual this talking is?” Meisner says, inter¬ 
rupting Joseph. “It’s very logical. What if I said to you, ‘That 
bitch of a sister of mine, who hates sex, saw two dogs mating and 
pointed out to my little innocent brother—innocent!—how dirty 
it was! I could kill her!’ What’s the difference?” 

“You’re talking about the difference between emotion and 
what you said was logical.” 

“So when you come in to talk to her, are you logical?” 

“No, I’m emotional.” 

“In other words, you’re in a rage, and that’s your preparation. 
Can you see anything in what she told your brother that is mor¬ 
ally sickening?” Meisner asks, and Joseph looks confused. “If 
somebody you love is an observer of a natural process which is 
a part of life, and is frightened to death because he’s told it’s 
filthy, immoral, dirty, it could have a very bad effect on him, 
couldn’t it?” 

“Yes.” 

“Well, that’s what she did. She’s neurotic, right? She hates sex. 
Why do you hate sex, Bette?” Meisner asks. 

Bette, who is four months pregnant and very large, bites her 
lip but doesn’t reply. 

“She can’t imagine hating sex,” Meisner says, and the class 
laughs. “That’s a character element. This is a character part for 
you in the sense that the attitude of this girl toward sex is alien 
to you.” 

“I’m trying to find a way to put it without intellectualizing it,” 
Bette says. 

“Well, why don’t you emotionalize it? All you have to know 
is that two dirty dogs fucking in public disgusts you. It’s disgust- 



“ d tl! any , b °, dy Wh ° dlsa S rees with you can go sit on a tack- 
and that includes your dumb brother!” 

“That’s her point of view,” Joseph says. ‘‘It’s not mine.” 

What s yours? 

sexys h dirty^’ deStr ° yed ^ y ° Unger br ° ther by tellin S him that 

“What did the kid do 2 ” 

“He ran away.” 

“Isn’t that pathetic?” 

John nods. Meisner turns to Bette. 

“How do you feel about the fact that he ran away 2 ” 

feeling guilty'‘T” ^ had 61thy tho “f= hts = be 

“To hell with him!” 

Yes! He deserves it. He should have run away 1 ” 

Are you glad you did it?” 

“Yes.” 

“Are you maliciously glad 2 ” 

“Yes.” 

To prepare, just sit down and tell yourself all of the things 
you hate most in the world.” Meisner pauses. “Is this beginning 

I /rtt.’’ enSe ^ y ° U? Preparatl0n 1S the worst P^blem in acting 

So do I,” Anna says. 

“You hate it? Why?” 

, f Tbe fr . UStratl0n 1 feel in to find something that will ) :] 

self-st,mulate me is fantastic. Then, when I finally do get some- ? 

mg, I lose it unless it’s very strong and very deeply rooted 
Unless it s strong enough to overcome the inhibition and shyness 
and self-consciousness, it disappears.” 

‘‘Well, play with it. Little by little you’ll get ,t.” 

Sandy ’ Joseph asks, “how do you know if you’re in the right 
ball park for your preparation if you don’t watch it?” 

et the director tell you, because if you watch yourself A 
you never get there.” He pauses for a moment. “Self-stim- i 
ulation. Ambition or sex. You know what sex is?” he asks * 





119 


MORE ON PREPARATION: “QUICK AS FLAME" 

“Filthy!” she exclaims. “Disgusting!” 

“Right!” Meisner says, and the class laughs. “Ambition or 
sex. That’s according to Dr. Freud, and I believe it. Let’s as¬ 
sume that you’re in a realistic play about economically very 
modest people. You’re playing the part of a clerk in a store 
wrapping packages who gets a promotion to become the over¬ 
seer of the entire wrapping department, and gets five dollars 
more a week as a raise. Now, to the actor playing that part, 
according to the play, that five bucks is ecstasy! And this actor 
knows that to get there all he has to do is to sing to himself the 
‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s gigantic, 
and when he sings it, it lifts him off his feet! That’s one of the 
choices he can make in order to induce in himself the transcen¬ 
dent happiness of the little shlemiel who got a five-dollar raise. 
The worst thing he could do is to try to imagine what he can do 
with the five dollars. That’s ridiculous, because we all know 
only too well what you can do with five dollars now. So the less 
realistic, the more fantastic a way you can charm yourself, the 
more valid your happiness seems, and the more important the 
five dollars become. The guy with the five-dollar raise comes in 
and is jumping with joy, but it may actually have come from 
the fact that some girl has said, ‘Okay, I’ll go out with you to¬ 
morrow night.’ ” 

He nods to Bette and Joseph and they return to their chairs. 
Because of her size, she lowers herself into the chair very slowly. 
“How long are you going to be able to stay in this class?” Meisner 
asks. 

“Right through,” Bette replies. “I’m not due until July, though 
I know it doesn’t look that way.” She laughs. “Did you hear what 
Ralph said to me?” 

“No.” 

“Ralph, tell Sandy what you said.” 

Ralph smiles and then sings the theme used at the Miss Amer¬ 
ica pageant: “Here she comes—North America!” 

The class laughs. 



February 23 

I think one of the problems that you all have with preparation,” 
Meisner says, “is that you try to make it too big. It isn’t enough 
to be in good spirits; you have to be hysterical with pleasure. 
That s too much. One of the things about emotion is that it has 
a way of coloring your behavior and that you can’t hide it. You 
simply can’t hide it.” 

He pauses for a moment before slowly standing to face the 
class. “What’s my mood now as I am talking to you?” he asks. 

“Serious,” Bette says. 

“Concerned,” Joseph adds. 

One of those would do. I think you’re making a problem out 
of stimulating in yourself too big an emotion. If you’re in good 
spirits, that doesn’t mean you’re hysterical; if you’re depressed, 
that doesn t mean you’re funereal. You say that right now I’m 
thoughtful, concerned. But I’m also very depressed. Now, that 
comes from my day at home-sweet-home, from my personal life. 
It’s possible to have a day at home-sweet-home when you want 
to kill yourself. That’s what’s affecting me now, and if my part¬ 
ner in a scene said to me, ‘How do you feel today?’ I’d say quietly, 
‘Lousy.’ That’s perfectly acceptable. I don’t have to take a pistol 
out and shoot myself or writhe on the floor. 

There s another thing you have to realize about emotion. You 
can’t hide it. You can mask it, but you can’t hide it. All I’m trying 
to say is that’s it’s fairly easy to put yourself in a state of good 
spirits. That s not so difficult, you know? But if you feel you have 
to have ten thousand pounds’ worth of good spirits, then you tret 
in trouble.” , • | 

Meisner returns to his desk and sits. “A couple of classes ago .'_j, 
you were all here—Joseph Morgan did an exercise with Ra- | 
chael. There was no doubt that he was depressed. The way he lay 1 
his head against her shoulder—it was as if his heart had broken. | 
You played a dirty trick on someone and it hurt your conscience 3 
right, Joe?” ’ h 

“Right.” 

“My point is that his acting was emotionally clear. But had this I 
been a play and not an exercise, on some nights during its run |§ 



121 


MORE ON PREPARATION: “QUICK AS FLAME" 

it could be fuller, and on some nights it could be emptier. But if 
he attempted a herculean preparation to work himself up into the 
lowest depths of misery, the audience would all be as old as I am 
by the time he finally made his entrance. Do you understand? 

“You cannot hide emotion, but you don’t need three tons of it 
in order to color your behavior properly. It’s just that you must 
not be empty. See, I maintain, and will continue to maintain, that 
Laurence Olivier is not a great actor. Did you see The Entertainer ? 
In that play he needed to master the characteristics of a vaudevil- 
lian—the speech and manner, the sleaze of that office building at 
Broadway and Forty-seventh Street where all the vaudevillians 
hang out. He did it very well because he’s a good actor and a 
thoughtful one, and if he decides to do this”—he sticks his thumb 
in his ear—“he gets a laugh! But when it came to the emotion of 
the part, there was nothing. There were two scenes in that play 
where he had to break down, and it’was pathetic how empty his 
emotion was.” He holds his hand to his face and skillfully indi¬ 
cates how Olivier indicated sobbing. 

“In the nineteenth century, there was a great English drama 
critic, William Hazlitt. He said of the great English actor Ed¬ 
mund Kean, that watching his emotion subside after a big scene 
from Shakespeare was like watching the tide go but. You follow? 
Mrs. Siddons, another great actress, was so strong as Lady 
Macbeth that women in the audience were terrified and would 
run out of the theater. Nobody has ever fled because of an emo¬ 
tional moment from Olivier, and unless you have that, you’re not 
a great actor.” 

Meisner pauses to adjust the microphone. “But the emotion of 
Kean and Mrs. Siddons did not, I think, come from preparation. 
Preparation is what you start with. Preparation is to acting what 
warming up the motor is to driving a car on a cold day. Could 
anything be simpler? Do you understand what I’m talking 
about?” 

He scans the faces of the class. “Ray, you don’t?” 

“I think so,” Ray says. “But on the one hand you explain how 
simple preparation is, and on the other you talk about great 
actors in a way that sounds like they have tons of emotion.” 

“But their emotion arises from the given circumstances of 



the play, the situation they imagine themselves to be in.” 

“It’s not necessarily something they bring on with them?” 

“No. When Kean played Othello and found out his wife was 
unfaithful to him, it was his talent that made that scene look as 
if he’d had an epileptic fit. That’s talent; you can’t do anything 
about that. I say occasionally—not too often—that someone is a 
‘talented actor.’ I see things. All I’m saying is: Don’t be empty or 
you’ll turn into Laurence Olivier.” 

The class laughs. 


February 27 

“Let’s talk about this,” Meisner says. “Ralph, you have an emo¬ 
tional block about this scene.” 

“I guess I do,” Ralph says with a plaintive sigh. He sits on the 
edge of the bed. “I feel very self-conscious and I have real diffi¬ 
culty getting a hold on it. It’s like mercury. I tried to practice 
preparation all week, and every time I tried to induce this emo¬ 
tion it just didn’t work.” ' 

“Ralph, in this scene your girl is sleeping with Joe Schmidt. 
The mystery is why you don’t blow up right away. I don’t under¬ 
stand that.” 

“That’s the thing. For some reason I can’t get pissed off here. 
Sometimes I’m walking down the street and involuntarily think 
of some guy I hate, and I want to punch him in the head. Then 
I try consciously to do it here and it doesn’t happen.” 

“You have to be more open to suggestion.” 

“You know what it is? You told me once that I always have to 
be the champ. I try to be good all the time. I was trying to give 
the best performance instead of concentrating on my partner and 
the emotional circumstances of the scene.” 

“What do your eighteen analysts say about your difficulty?” 
Meisner asks. 

“There are twenty of them, every one of them is baffled,” 
Ralph says. “Actually, you know what they say? They say, 
‘You’re afraid to be angry, aren’t you?’ I used to have a violent 
temper when I was a little kid.” 



MORE ON PREPARATION: “QUICK AS FLAME” 


123 


“Get it back,” Meisner says and the class laughs. “Seriously, 
Ralph, I think you’re right,” he continues., “Your problem arises 
from trying too hard to be good. It’s understandable, but there’s 
a danger in trying too hard to be good. That’s why the rookie 
ballplayer strikes out and the intern gets slapped with a malprac¬ 
tice suit.” 


March 1 

“What are you doing, Ralph? This is no good, you know?” 
Meisner interrupts the exercise which Ralph and Rachael began 
only a few minutes ago. 

“Well, last night I met the Penthouse magazine ‘Pet of the 
Month’ at a bar, and I had her laughing all night,” Ralph says 
nervously. He holds a notebook and a pencil in his hands. “I told 
her I’d write her a funny poem about how to go from being a 
fold-out to real life—” 

“The difficulty in that is that your imagination is without 
reality. That’s one problem, which I’ll discuss later. Another is 
that you’re forcing all sorts of dialogue to happen so that you’ll 
feel you’re continuously active. You keep talking, keep relating 
to her not on the basis of what she’s doing, but in order to 
perform. I don’t know how to make this clearer to you.” 

“I understand. I felt that I was performing too. I was forcing 
it.” 

“Why do you do it?” 

“I don’t know. It comes down to the old thing, I guess: wanting 
to be the champ.” 

“Exhibitionism,” Meisner says. “That’s not necessarily bad. As 
an actor, you must have a certain amount of exhibitionism.” 

“Do you want me to say what that means to me? It means that 
I’m trying to show off.” 

“That’s right. What’s the best way to act well?” 

“The best way to act well is to live truthfully, and don’t create 
a phony situation.” 

“Why do I have to ask you when you already know this?” 

“Because my natural tendency seems to come out.” 



124 

“Your unnatural tendency.” 

: “Okay, my unnatural tendency. I was thinking about the 
preparation, and I guess I planned it too much. I was wanting to 
be good, instead of just—” 

“Ralph; did you ever hear that phrase ‘Don’t do something 
until something happens . . ” 

“ ‘. . . to make you do it,’ ” Ralph says. 

“Right. What’s that mean?” 

“It means that I shouldn’t have done anything to fill the gaps.” 

“That’s right,” Meisner says. “Who do you want to be, Milton 
Berle?” 

■ “No.” . 

“Thank God!” 

“Though I guess somewhere inside I do,” Ralph says, and the 
class laughs. 

“The funniest thing—not the funniest, I’ve heard funnier— 
but the thing about you—I was thinking about it—is that I said 
something to you one day in class, and ever since then you’ve 
gone off balance. What was it I said?” 

“Something about the fact that I’m blocked. I remember I 
couldn’t get angry in a scene, couldn’t prepare for it. I think that 
ever since then I’ve taken it to mean that I couldn’t prepare at 
all, and so I’ve been trying to prove that I could.” 

“I never said that.” 

“I know you never said that. It was my, you know . . .” 

“I liked your entrance very much. You came in singing. But 
if Rachael hadn’t been there it probably would have been better. 
Why do I say that?” ' 

“Because I wouldn’t have felt the imperative to push anything. 
I would have had to do what I had to do—namely, write that 
funny poem—and not try to prove in neon lights that I can work 
off the other person.” 

“What should I do with you? You answer everything intelli¬ 
gently. Do you mind being a little stupid next time and simply 
react to the simple things you get from your partner? You can’t 
play Hamlet every day. Ever since I told you that, you’ve had a 
problem. 

“Well—that’s—” Ralph stammers. 



125 


MORE ON PREPARATION: "QUICK AS FLAME" 

“That’s right. It’s my fault.” 

“That’s okay,” Ralph says, and the class laughs. 

“Every actor is an exhibitionist. If you’re not an exhibitionist, 
you’re no actor. But to be a good actor . . .” He pauses. “Ralph, 
you see what’s happening here, don’t you?” 

“Yes, I do.” 


March 5 

Ralph enters the room, where Rachael sits at a table writing a 
letter. Francois Truffaut’s book Hitchcock is open beside her. 
Without acknowledging her presence, Ralph crosses to the bed, 
sits on the edge, opens a spiral notebook and begins to write. 
They continue to write for what seems a very long time. 

“What is this,” Meisner asks, interrupting the silence, “the 
New York Public Library? Don’t you have a relationship?” 

“We’re cousins,” Rachael says, looking up from her letter. 

“That’s no relationship.” 

“We share a house together.” 

“What brings you together so that you share a house?” 

“We’re like brother and sister. We grew up together and we 
share this house.” 

“Look,” Meisner says. “In the first moment there’s got to be 
at least one circumstance that brings you together. I don’t care 
if it’s that he told your parents that you’re living with a Russian 
spy. That’s the root of a relationship. At least it justifies with 
theatrical reality that when he walks in—” 

“I react to him.” 

“Yes, you might even say, ‘Hello, Shit Face.’ But there was 
nothing here. Do you follow?” 

“I follow,” Ralph says mournfully. 

“Or, if you used only what exists, you might pick up from his 
withdrawn silence that he’s notoriously antisocial. You might 
even say, ‘The cat got your tongue?’ And what you don’t know 
is that he hates cats, so his reply might be, ‘If you mention cats 
to me once more, I’ll knock your teeth out!’ What does it mean 
to use what exists, Ralph?” 



“To let what’s happening affect you.” 

“At least to be aware of it, right? What happened when you 
came in?” ■ 

“Nothing. She just sat there with her back to me.” 

“That s not nothing. That’s something. What’s that mean?” 

“No response is a response.” 

“ There’s no such thing as nothing.” 

“I didn’t want to force something. I guess I didn’t want to 
make the mistake I did last time,” Ralph says. 

“Forget your past!” 

“I just felt like . . . It’s frustrating, that’s all.” 

“You’re a little self-conscious, aren’t you? You want to be right, 
don’t you?” 

“Yeah.” . 

“Who doesn’t? ‘There’s no such thing as nothing.’ Rachael, 
what does that mean?” 

“There is always something even if it’s silence.” 

“Even though it’s nothing.” , 

“Yeah.” ' 

Meisner pauses while deciding how to continue. Finally he 
says, “Ralph, go out and come in again. Leave your notebook here 
on the table. You can come in and find it. Where are you coming 
from?” 

“From work.” 

“That’s meaningless.” 

“I had a very bad time at work—” 

“Why did you have a bad time?” 

“I 1 was asked to take out the garbage, and I wasn’t hired for 
that.” 

“How do you feel about that?” 

“Pissed off. I want to quit. I want to write a letter of resigna¬ 
tion.” 

“Does that mean angry?” 

“It means angry.” 

“So you’re coming home from work after having been humil¬ 
iated. Let me see you do that. Take your coat with you and spend 
some time preparing.” 

Ralph leaves, closing the door. Meisner signals to Rachael to 



127 


MORE ON PREPARATION: "QUICK AS FLAME" 

give him Ralph’s notebook, which he hides in a drawer in his 
desk. Then he asks Rachael, “What are you doing?” . 

“I’m writing a letter to someone I want to seduce, and he 
knows a lot about Alfred Hitchcock.” 

“You want to be seduced?” 

“I want to seduce someone.” 

“Alfred Hitchcock?” 

“No, the person I want to seduce loves the work of Alfred 
Hitchcock, and I’m trying to compose a letter thanking him for 
lunch which contains all sorts of references to Hitchcock films.” 

“Okay,” Meisner says. “Don’t tell Ralph that I’ve got his note¬ 
book.” 

Ralph enters the room, closes the door quietly and stands still 
for a moment before taking off his coat. He is visibly upset, and 
slams his coat onto the bed before crossing to the table, where he 
remembers leaving his notebook. Its absence is a genuine sur¬ 
prise to him, and the resulting exercise, though brief, has vitality. 

“All right,” Meisner says after a few minutes. “Now tell me, 
what did I do? Not what did you do, but what did I do?” 

“You made something happen,” Ralph says. “You made me 
want something. You created a need and made it impossible for 
me to—” 

“I made it more alive,” Meisner says. “Right? How did I do 
that?” . 

“You gave me something to do.” 

“I made you come from something that had happened, right?” 

“Right. You made it more specific.” 

“And what happened because of that?” 

“The scene came more alive. It got on the edge of something 
more important.” 

“It came to life. Were you working off each other?” 

“Yes.” 

“Ralph, what I did to you—and this is no disgrace, quite the 
contrary—was to pull you back almost to the beginning. Why did 
I do that?” , 

“Because I got lost.” 

“So I gave you a compass.” 

“Right.” 



“And that’s where you’re going to stay until I feel that ynu’re 
strong in yourself again. It won’t last long—one or two weeks.”, 

Ralph nods, and he and Rachael return to their seats. 

Meisner pauses for a moment before turning to the class. “The 
principle is ‘Don’t do anything until something happens to make 
you do it.’ In this exercise Ralph came in from having an alterca¬ 
tion at work; he wouldn’t empty the garbage. The boss was nasty, 
and he came in to write a letter of resignation. The first time he 
had no preparation. He came in, went right to the pad on the 
table, wrote his resignation, and it was as if we were in the public 
library. The second time he had his anger, which had to be 
prepared for, and it was good!” 

Ralph grins shyly. 

“Don’t come in from nowhere,” Meisner continues. “Come in 
from some situation which has a circumstance in it that gives you 
a foothold for a preparation. You follow? There was nothing 
wrong with Ralph as an actor at the beginning of this class last 
fall, before he started learning with a capital L. Then, for one 
reason or another, he got sick. What did I have to do? I had to give 
him an inoculation. What was/the inoculation? No acting , please. 
Ralph, that was good. Very simple, but you were working off 
each other. What’s wrong with that? It was good.” 

Ralph sighs with relief. 

“Don’t be an actor,” Meisner says. “Be a human being who 
works off what exists under imaginary circumstances. Don’t give 
a performance. Let the performance give you.” 


March 8 


“Wait a minute. I assume that you know all the lines.” 

“I’m really shaky on my last speech before the end,” Ralph 
says. 

“I’m shaky on my life,” Meisner says and the class laughs. 
“Look, have you got anything here that you can use as an inde¬ 
pendent activity?” 

“Yes. I could write a letter.” 

“An important letter. Get your pen and paper. And you, Ra- ?| 





gpORE ON PREPARATION: “QUICK AS -FLAME" -(29 

if: 

(| chael, straighten up the room so that it’s as neat as it possibly can 
H be while you say the lines.” 

C : “Should we do the lines mechanically?” Rachael asks. 

No. As he concentrates on writing his important letter and 
you concentrate on fixing up the room, adjust to each other.” 

She nods and they begin. Ralph sits at the table and begins to 
write his letter and Rachael straightens the books piled onto the 
bookcase. The words of their lines are actively filtered through 
| his concentrated struggle to write a difficult letter and her deter¬ 
mined efforts to straighten up the cluttered room. 

After a few minutes Meisner interrupts the scene. “Okay, I 
want to play with this. The color of that text, the way it came 
out of you, depended on what you were physically doing at the 
moment: organizing the books, making the bed, writing the let¬ 
ter. Now let’s try something new. In this case the organic—a big 
word color of the text will depend on what’s going on inside of 
you emotionally. In this scene, Rachael, the father whom you 
love is about to commit suicide; he’s ill, it’s terminal, it’s painful. 
And you, Ralph, are her rich, playboy brother from Southamp¬ 
ton. Your sister has telephoned you, and you’ve just jumped into 
your Jaguar to rush over to East Hampton where she lives. To 
begin with, your dominant emotional color is your irrepressible 
good humor. Then it will change by itself, just as the color of the 
text changed depending on whether you were reshelving the 
books or making the bed or what you were writing in that letter. 
The color changed depending on what you were doing at that 
particular moment, right?” 

They both nod in agreement. 

So Rachael, you 11 start off with a preparation, an inner emo¬ 
tional state—no more fixing books. When you enter, it’s as if you 
were coming from your father’s sickbed, where the doctor has 
told you about his depression. Emotionally, the key is that you 
love your father. But the key to your inner life, Ralph, is that 
you’re playing the female lead in the Southampton Country Club 
production of The Merry Widow. Why do I say that to you?” 

Because it’s funny. It’s a light and humorous thing to do.” 

“Do you remember what I said to you a week or so ago about 
the river and the canoe floating on it? Rachel, earlier, the river 



V 


130 

for you was getting the room organized. Ralph, the 
was your writing the letter. Now we’re advancing. The 
inner; for you, Rachael, it revolves around the fact that 
father is dying. For you, Ralph, the river is that you’re the 
of The Merry Widow. Now, each river is going to have many 
of currents as it moves along. Do you understand?” 

“Yes,” they both say. 

“Fine. Don’t try to do the whole thing. Do as much as you can 
do securely for next time,” Meisner says, “on Monday.” 


March 12 

Joseph and Anna quietly read their scene from The Girl on the Via 
Flaminia by Alfred Hayes. 

Meisner interrupts. “Listen to me carefully. Anna, here’s a girl 
who comes from a very respectable middle-class family. She’s 
decent, sensitive and well educated—a superior girl. In the war 
she and her family were starving. Things were terrible in Italy 
during the war. So what does this eminently superior girl do? She 
deliberately goes with an American soldier because the Ameri¬ 
cans are rich and have everything. But it’s interesting; she doesn’t 
pick a bum, she picks someone who in his own way is as superior 
as she is. Then the police come, and this sensitive girl is arrested 
and tagged; she’s registered as a common prostitute. For her this 
is total demolishment. When she comes into the room she’s abso¬ 
lutely destroyed. That’s the background for her emotion.” 

“Does the family know?” Anna asks. 

“No. But the family downstairs knows because they tell the 
soldier. Now, Joseph, you find out before you come upstairs 
what’s happened to her, and whether you like it or not, you’re 
the cause.” . 

“Of her being tagged a prostitute?” 

“Right! So you feel all her humiliation and degradation too, 
because of what you did to her without meaning to. Do you 
follow?” 

“Yeah.” ' ■ 




“Anna, I can give you one thing. Next time get against a wall, 
A break down and try to disappear into that wall like a cockroach! 

Take the emotional part of it very easy to begin with, because you 
; have to read the script. Don’t try to do the whole scene next time, 
just get it started emotionally. Do you understand, Joseph?” 

- ” “When I say, ‘If there was anything I could have done, I would 
have done it,’ isn’t that where I find out?” 

“No, they’ve already told you downstairs.” 

“So when I say my first line, ‘Would you like some cognac?,’ 
that’s the beginning? I start the emotion there?” 

“The emotion starts downstairs. ‘Would you like some co¬ 
gnac?’ is just a way of trying to cheer her up.” 

“So you want me to come in with a preparation and start the 
scene right there? ‘Would you—’ ” 

“ ‘Would you like some cognac?’ I want you to start the scene 
emotionally there. Any questions? Don’t learn the lines; let them 
happen. Improvise, do anything you want to bring to life the 
feeling of your degradation, Anna, and the feeling of your guilt, 
Joseph. You know what I said about the river and the words like 
the canoe that floats on it? Well, I want you gradually to start the 
river flowing.” 


March 15 

Anna enters, closes the door, crosses to the bed against the wall 
and wraps herself in the dark green bedspread. After a few min¬ 
utes she begins to sob. Joseph enters and the scene begins. His 
preparation is not deep and quickly subsides. He is grave, consid¬ 
erate, concerned, but not emotional. Anna is excellent; her emo¬ 
tion is full and deeply affecting. The only impediment is her 
insecurity with the lines. 

“Let’s talk about this,” Meisner says. “That was a big advance 
over last time. Learn as many lines as you can, because when you 
have to start thinking about what the next line is, it breaks the 
flow of the emotion. Yet the problem here is not how to learn the 
lines; you know how to do that. The problem is emotional, and 



132 

you’ve come a good way in finding that in yourself. Do you know 
that?” 

“Yeah, I do,” Anna says while wiping her eyes. 

“Joseph, you can go further, especially at the beginning. It’s 
almost as if you have to wait outside the door in order to get some 
kind of control over yourself so that she doesn’t see how badly 
you feel. Do you understand?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Look, if you get fifty percent of this scene, you’re fifty percent 
ahead of yourself. You follow?” 

“I do.” 

“So I’m patient, and you should be patient. The problem is 
emotional. It’s to bring yourself emotionally to the text so that, 
as I said before, that river—I’m talking to you, Joseph—starts to 
flow with a reasonable degree of fullness. So if you get fifty 
percent of it, that’s a big advance, isn’t it?” 

“Yeah,” Joseph says. He seems discouraged. 

“Joseph Morgan. I wonder,” Meisner says, “I just wonder 
whether you go far enough away from the play into yourself for 
your preparation. Do you understand?” 

“Yeah, I do make it personal,” Joseph says. “But somehow it 
takes a while for me to connect... I don’t know how to talk about 
it. Somehow the circumstances have to become real to me.” 

“Maybe you want to make it too personal?” 

“I don’t know about that. Usually at some point something 
kicks in and it becomes real to me. My preparation was very 
personal—it had to do with my family—but if it leaves me, it 
leaves me.” 

“Don’t try to get it back,” Meisner says. 

“I don’t. You know, I think it’s a matter of time.” 

“I agree. Just because we talk about it on Thursday doesn’t 
mean that you’re going to come in all set on the following Mon¬ 
day. It moves slowly, you see? The difference between Anna 
today and Anna on Thursday was a very real advance, and it was 
having its effect on you. You follow?” . 

Joseph nods and Meisner pauses for a moment. 

“Suppose that you saw—you can’t even remember when or 



MORE ON PREPARATION: “QUICK AS FLAME" 


133 


where—one of those poor guys who sleep on the street. Say you 
saw him eat out of a garbage pail and it turned your stomach. 
That might be just fine for this scene. Now that’s personal to me, 
but it springs from my imagination. The highly personal nature 
of preparation does not mean literally personal. When my father 
died, we, the family, were standing by the grave.” Meisner stands 
up, puts the voice transmitter into the right pocket of his jacket 
and picks up his cane. He walks around the desk to face the class. 
“While they were lowering the coffin, I realized what I was doing 
with my foot. As the coffin was going down, the foot was going 
like this.” His right shoe begins to shift on the ball of his foot as 
if he were methodically grinding out a cigarette or crushing a 
cockroach. 

“Oh, my God,” Anna says quietly. 

“You see! Look at her reaction!” he says, pointing to Anna. 
“Look at yours!” he says to Bette. “You were shocked, and she 
was shocked in a different way. Yet at that gravesite, I felt noth¬ 
ing except Don't ever come up again! Now, what could be more 
personal than that? Yet now it doesn’t do a thing for me, except 
perhaps to make me giggle a little bit. I tell you this to point out 
the fact that you’ll never know how something will affect you 
emotionally. If I had any shame or self-respect, I wouldn’t tell 
you that story. But I don’t have.” • 

As Meisner returns slowly to his desk, Anna raises her hand. 
“Sandy, when you say personal—and you just pointed out that 
something can be extremely personal and really not have any 
kind of deep emotional effect on you—is it also possible, as you 
said to Joseph, that something can be too personal? That when 
something is very personal you want to keep it private, and 
therefore it inhibits you even though it affects you very deeply?” 

“Right! And only you can know the difference.” 

“When something is personal and affecting but you don’t feel 
the need to keep it private?” 

“Yes. I told one of my forty-two analysts this story about my 
father, and he was very impressed with its meaning.” 

“I’m sure,” Anna says. 



The other forty-one didn’t say anything: They never do, voir' 
know.” . 

; , J r 

" * 

II ’ :'T : :§§ 

Scott Roberts enters Meisner’s office. 

“Yes, that’s the book,” Meisner says. “I gave it to the library X. 
thirty years ago.” yX 

Scott hands him the small red book, Sigmund Freud’s^ General 
Introduction to Psychoanalysis, * and Meisner flips through it for a 
few minutes. “This is the passage you asked me about,” he says, 
finally, pointing to a page toward the end of the volume. “It’s 
marvelous. I can’t tell you how much this discussion of fantasy y 
helped me clarify my thoughts about the dreadful problem of 
preparation.” 

He returns the book to Scott. “Please, read this aloud,” he says. 

“I can’t see well enough.” 

Scott clears his throat and begins to read Freud’s pioneering 
text: “Before you leave today, F should like to direct your at ten- I 
tion for a moment to a side of fantasy-life of very general interest. 
There is, in fact, a path from fantasy back again to reality, and 
that is—art. The artist has also an introverted disposition and has 
not far to go to become neurotic. He is one who is urged on by 
instinctual needs which are too clamorous; he longs to attain to 
honour, power, riches, fame, and the love of women; but he lacks 
the means of achieving these gratifications. So, like any other 
with an unsatisfied longing, he turns away from reality and trans¬ 
fers all his interest, and all his libido too, onto the creation of his 
wishes in the life of fantasy, from which the way might readily 
lead to neurosis. There must be many factors in combination to 
prevent this becoming the whole outcome of his development; it 
is well known how often artists in particular suffer from partial 
inhibition of their capacities through neurosis. Probably their 

“Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis; trans. Joan Riviere 
(New York: Pocket Books, 1953), 384-385. 



§ constitution is endowed with a powerful capacity for sublima- 
J tion and with a certain flexibility in the repressions determining 
the conflict. But the way back to reality is found by the artist 
thus: He is not the only one who has a life of fantasy; the interme¬ 
diate world of fantasy is sanctioned by general human consent, 
and every hungry soul looks to it for comfort and consolation. 
But to those who are not artists the gratification that can be 
drawn from the springs of fantasy is very limited; their inexora¬ 
ble repressions prevent the enjoyment of all but the meager day¬ 
dreams which can become conscious. A true artist has more at his 
disposal. First of all he understands how to elaborate his day¬ 
dreams, so that they lose that personal note which grates upon 
strange ears and become enjoyable to others; he knows too how 
to modify them sufficiently so that their origin in prohibited 
sources is not easily detected. Further, he possesses the mysteri¬ 
ous ability to mould his particular material until it expresses the 
ideas of his fantasy faithfully; and then he knows how to attach 
to this reflection of his fantasy-life so strong a stream of pleasure 
that, for a time at least, the repressions are bout-balanced and 
dispelled by it. When he can do all this, he opens out to others 
the way back to the comfort and consolation of their own con¬ 
scious sources of pleasure, and so reaps their gratitude and admi¬ 
ration; then he has won—through his fantasy—what before he 
could only win in fantasy: honour, power, and the love of 
women.” 

Roberts closes the book and places it on Meisner’s mahogany 
desk. • ' ‘ : 

“Isn’t that marvelous?” Meisner asks. “ ‘Then he has won— 
through his fantasy . . . honour, power, and the love of women.’ 
I just love it.” 





The Magic As If: Particularization 


meisner: I’m going to tell you all something. 

if The text is your greatest enemy. 

lllll 




April 26 


The class begins with Bette and Beth performing the final scene 
from Lillian Heilman’s The Children's Hour. At the end of the 
scene, Meisner begins his criticism. 

“Acting in my terms, in all our terms except for the English 
—the Americans, the Russians, the Germans—is an emotional 
creation. It has an inner content. Unlike the English, who know 
intellectually what the character should be feeling and indicate 
this through the way they verbally handle the text, we work from 
living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Beth, I’ll take 
this very slowly. The play says that the man you love leaves you 
because he suspects that you’re a lesbian, right?” 

“Yes.” 


THE MAGIC /IS IF PARTICULARIZATION 


137 


“Let’s say that this doesn’t mean anything to you as a person. 
You don’t know the sensation of being a lesbian, or the experi¬ 
ence of it. It’s alien to you, but you have to play the part, right? 

“To him a lesbian is an appalling pervert, but his accusation 
touches off nothing emotional in you. It’s just words on paper, 
a cold text. How do you solve, this problem? In this case, let’s say 
that this is as if you were accused of something which is horrify¬ 
ing to you. Now, I don’t know what’s horrifying to you, but if 
you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find something in your experi¬ 
ence or imagination. What could it be? It doesn t have to be 
sexual. Let me talk in a personal, yet imaginative way, about 
something that, had it happened to me, I would never tell any¬ 
body. Suppose that when the actress playing this part was five 
years old, a gang of four or five local ruffians dragged her into a 
deserted lot and ripped off her clothes. The horror, the disgrace 
of this experience is still so alive in her that whenever she recalls 
it she breaks down. So that might be a useful preparation for the 
opening of this scene, Beth, because what you’re doing now is 
reading lines in a kind of sad way, but it has no life, no emotion.” 

“Yes,” Beth says, “I felt that I couldn’t get the top off, some¬ 
how.” 

“That’s what you prepare for. I can’t think of episodes or 
incidents for you which arouse in you terror, horror, shame—call 
it what you like. You have to do it by yourselfi But if it’s just 
words, it’s not good enough. That’s the point. This phrase, ‘it’s 
as iff is called a ‘particularization’ in the pure terms used by 
Stanislavsky. 

Here Beth is required to act a scene in which her boyfriend, 
the man she loves—it’s real love, very rare—leaves her because 
he thinks she’s a lesbian. If she reads the lines—and they’re just 
lines—” Meisner says and then paraphrases the text: “ ‘He went 
away.’ ‘Is he coming back for dinner?’ ‘No.’ ‘You mean he’s 
coming back late?’ ‘No, he’s not coming.’ ‘Not coming at all?’ 
‘No.’ ‘Well,’ her partner says, ‘I’ll just light the burner under the 
goulash.’ 

“This is where the as if comes in. It’s pure Stanislavsky. It’s 
as if she were a five-year-old kid and something dreadful hap¬ 
pened to her—something miserable, something degrading. Or it 



could be as if she were in a stare of total shock, or as if she wereli 
suddenly paralyzed with fear or tension. In that particularization^ 
is the preparation.” 

“Sandy,” Beth says, “I don’t know what my problem is, butt-i 
when I sit at home I can find memories or fantasies that arouse 
certain emotions in me. But here, sometimes they work and '| 
sometimes they don’t. When I was trying to prepare out in the 'J 
hall, I felt that I was trying to force something. It wouldn’t come if 
and I got nervous, and the more I tried to force it, the less it J§ 
happened.” . _ yyl 

“It didn’t mean anything to you.” - j;| 

“But when I was by myself it did.” . . y 

“Then change the preparation. How many times have you S 
heard a piece of music and after about ten repetitions you say to ' 
yourself, ‘If I hear that once more, I’m going to break the record!’ 
Change it! That will revitalize your preparation.” 

He pauses to adjust the microphone. 

“But a particularization, an as, if, is something else. It’s your 
personal example chosen from your experience or your imagina¬ 
tion which emotionally clarifies the cold material of the text.” 

“Would you say that again?” John asks. 

“What did I say?” Meisner asks Lila. 

“You said it’s your own personal example which clarifies,” Lila 
says. “I didn’t hear the end of it.” 

Meisner says, “Look, I’m going to stay on this subject maybe 
for the whole class. It’s about time I did. What have I said so far, 
Ray?” 

“That when you come up against a text that’s cold to you, 
which doesn’t mean anything because the circumstances are - 
alien to you, you use a particularization—another way to say that 
is ‘as if —to describe for yourself a situation that would bring you 
personally to the emotional place you need to be in for the sake 
of the scene.” 

“Don’t say ‘describe.’ Say ‘evolve.’ Bring to life in you. Let’s 
take another example from this scene, and then we’ll go on. Beth, 
you’re not a lesbian, are you?” 

“No,” Beth says. 



\G\C AS IF: PARTICULARIZATION 


ifs-“But you have to say to Bette, ‘He thinks we are.’ What kind 
Hof particularization could you think of which would clarify the 
way in which you tell her that your ex-boyfriend thinks you’re 
lovers?” 

: V “I have two problems,” Beth says. “One thing I think of is that 
I’m feeling sad because my boyfriend left me—” 

“Forget the story!” 

“I guess I’d think that if someone who really loved me left me 
because—” 


“Forget love!” 

“Well, if he thought I was involved with someone else sexually, 
and I wasn’t, and he was falsely accusing me—” 

“Forget sex! You’ve got a one-track mind!” 

The class laughs. 

“Sex or ambition,” Beth says. “Didn’t you say there’s nothing 
else?” ■ ■■ . 

“Suppose it was as if you told her that your boyfriend thinks 
you both take heroin. It’s a deadly secret, isn’t it? Or it’s as if he 
suspects you both have, prison records or jointly murdered an 
illegitimate child or were practicing witchcraft. You see, this is 
an area of acting which makes its demands entirely on your 
imagination. Suppose that Ralph and John were cast as players 
on the same football team, and suppose that in the play, Ralph, 
you’re hurt on the field and are brought into the locker room and 
are lying there unconscious while your team is waiting for the 
ambulance to come. And suppose that I, as the director, said to 
you, John, ‘Stand there and watch him as if he were your wife 
who is dying.’ Now, God knows that has little to do with two 
football players, but we, the audience, will never know where 
you got your emotion, John, although we will be responsive to 
it. And if anybody says to you, ‘Where did you get that moment? 
It’s very touching,’your answer is,‘Buzz off!’” 

“What the director said to John was just to clarify the situa¬ 
tion,’.’ Ralph says. “It’s not a particularization he has to keep 
forever, is it?” 

“To clarify what part of the situation?” Meisner asks. 

“To clarify his feeling about what he’s watching.” 



* 


140 

“His emotion.” 

“But is there a difference between what he feels about my f 
injury and his emotion?” 

“The audience attaches the emotion to what he’s doing. He’s ; 
standing there watching you bleed to death, and we see that he’s 
very moved. But we do not know where his emotion is coming ,; 
from.” '.''.i: 

“So a particularization is similar to a preparation,” Joseph says, 
“only it’s for a specific moment.” 

“It has to be chosen,” Meisner says. 

“And it must be personal.” 

“Yes. And it’s worked on in rehearsal.” 

“So it’s what you do your homework on and bring into re¬ 
hearsal,” Joseph says'. 

“Is the particularization then a permanent part of the perfor¬ 
mance?” Rose Marie asks. “If I’m doing my two hundredth per¬ 
formance of Death of a Salesman—" 

“Oh, by that time you may have had fifty different prepara¬ 
tions, but the particularizations—the as ifs which have been 
worked out in rehearsal and are now those elements that give 
form to your role—remain constant.” 

Ray holds up his hand. “So when you choose a particulariza¬ 
tion, you choose what the moment is about emotionally. How do 
you make those choices? Is that the subject of a different class, or 
can we talk about it now?” 

“They come from your instincts.” 

“Your instincts in relation to that particular scene?” 

“Of course.” 

“As a result of how you either understand it or misunderstand 
it?” Ray asks. 

“Of course! Let me ask you a question. Is there ever a time, no 
matter how many times Beth plays in The Children's Hour, when 
that character is not going to have to squirm with misery when 
she announces that her boyfriend is never coming back?” 

After a pause, Ray says, “You put me in a spot because I want 
to say, ‘No,’ but at the same time 1 want to say that an equally 
valid reading would be if she were pissed off at the woman she 




s lives with because of what has happened, and so anger comes out 
'£< instead.” 

“Then it’s a mischoice.” 

“Okay, that’s what I’m asking. How do you make the right 
choice?” 

“Your instinct!” 

“Also,” Rose Marie says, “there’s a director.” 

“Yes,” Meisner says, “there’s a director. The director is going 
to let you know what he wants you to project emotionally. Look, 
Chopin wrote a piece called “The Revolutionary Etude.” Every¬ 
body has played it. Can it ever be anything but”—and he mimes 
playing the triumphant piece on the top of his desk—“ ‘The 
Revolutionary Etude’? Do you understand?” 

“I do,” Ray says, “but I want to say that everybody who plays 
it will play it differently, and everyone who has to get to that 
emotion which the director wants gets there differently, person¬ 
ally.” 

“Real pianists who play it will play it differently, but they will 
all play the same notes.” 

“Are you saying,” Beth asks, “that if they play the same notes, 
the color or emotional tone will be the same?” 

“More or less,” Meisner says. “Can you imagine a cheerful 
Hamlet?” 

“No, I honestly can’t. But perhaps this is only my problem. 
Sometimes during the preparation I start observing myself in¬ 
stead of simply doing it, and when I start judging it, I stop feeling 
it. Then, as in this scene, I freeze up.” 

“Look, this is the tenth time you’ve told me that you watch 
yourself. It’s a particular problem which remains unresolved in 
your technique.” 

“I’m trying to figure out how not to do it.” 

“I’m trying to figure out how to tell you what to do,” Meisner 
says. “Wait a minute. There’s a certain element—would that it 
weren’t there, but it is—in preparation which makes you aware 
of yourself. But the moment you play the scene and your atten¬ 
tion focuses on something else, that self-consciousness dimin¬ 
ishes. Do you understand?” 



“Yes, I do. Thank you.” y.. . .; ; ;Sr| 

“Particularization,” Meisner says, “is really very simple and 
not nearly as complicated as preparation—nor as subtle. Let’s say ' jf 
I make up my mind that I hate to teach, see? That’s all I have to •; 
say.” He gets up and goes to the door of the room. “So I come 
into the class .. .” He hobbles into the room, glares at the students . J 
and says, “Oh, shut up!” The class laughs. Then he repeats the ; 
entrance, except that this time he waltzes in, delighted to see his 
students. “Is everybody here?” he asks, and they laugh again. 
“Now, I didn’t have to work that out. I just know what ‘I bate •; 
to teach’—‘I love to teach’ does to me emotionally. The only thing 
I cannot do is to do nothing —that is, not to interpret. It’s really 
very simple if you are imaginative. It’s instinctive.” 

Meisner returns to his desk. “Do you know the Ibsen play 
Hedda Gabler ? She burns the manuscript at the end of the play. 

Do you remember that? Once I talked to Harold Clurman about 
that scene, and Harold said that when Hedda burns the man¬ 
uscript, she’s burning him] That’s not just his book, it’s her 
unfaithful lover! Now, the difference between burning a manu¬ 
script and burning a man is enormous. That’s a particularization! 
That manuscript is him! Not,his book, but him \” 

Meisner sits at the desk, removes the transmitter from his 
pocket and places it on the desk top. 

“Let me tell you something here. There are some roles, for any 
given actor, which cannot be particularized. If Helen Hayes tried 
to play Hedda Gabler, it would be ludicrous, right?” 

The class agrees. 

“The text would be spoken—even Judith Anderson learns her 
lines—but it would come out without the underlying emotion. 

“She would make the correct choices,’ Anna says, “do the 
right things, but it would come out—” 

“She’d play the obvious play.” 

“That’s my worst fear,” Bette says. 

"That's your worst fear?” Meisner asks, and the class laughs. 

“It’s in the top ten, yeah,” Bette says. “I’m constantly afraid of 
that because I—” 

“I’ll tell you something about that,” Meisner says. “\ou are 
what you are. Your personality is what it is. There are some things 



143 


I THE MAGIC AS IF. PARTICULARIZATION 

that you cannot change and that you may as well accept in your¬ 
self. Each of us has a certain scope and certain limitations. That’s 
’ our nature, our theatrical nature. We are limited:by our theatrical 
nature, which can be very narrow or very, broad. Duse could not 
play Shakespeare. She tried but she failed,; You should read 
George Bernard Shaw’s articles on Duse and Bernhardt to under¬ 
stand on the highest level the difference in theatrical personali¬ 
ties.” 

Meisner pauses for a moment before continuing. “You know, 
Maureen Stapleton is a wonderful actress, but if you ask her to 
play the mother in The Glass Menagerie she’s not very good. 
There’s something in her temperament which doesn’t come to¬ 
gether with that character. But give her the lead in The Rose Tattoo 
and nobody can touch her. There are some parts we don’t have 
the temperament for even if we understand them, and there are 
some parts we are so right for that we don’t even know that we 
understand them.” 

“So temperament means emotional understanding?” Joseph asks. 

“What’s wrong with that?” Meisner asks. “I wish you could see 
me play Macbeth. You see, you laugh. What’s more, I laugh. 
What’s the harm in being told that certain parts are not right for 
you? The Group Theatre had a custom. The directors would read 
the new play to the whole company before they cast it and we 
went into rehearsal. Well, after one or two plays, when they read 
the new play and it turned out that during the course of the 
action a sideboard was moved and something crept out that 
hadn’t been seen for years, I’d say to myself, ‘Good God, that’s 
my part!’ And you know, I was hardly ever wrong. The truth is, 
there are some roles we can play better than others.” 

Rose Marie raises her hand. “Do you think that if you’re play¬ 
ing in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest it’s necessary to go to an 
insane asylum to see how the people behave?” 

“No.” 

“All you have to do is to go to Forty-second and Eighth, right?” 

“If you want to go even that far,” Meisner says. “You know, 
when I played the young son, Julie, in the Odets play Paradise 
Lost, I had to play a boy who was dying of sleeping sickness. Did 
I go to a hospital where they had sleeping-sickness patients? No. 



144 -^V;;V4 : r:V : 

But I did ask a doctor what the symptoms were, and he said, ‘You 
get paralyzed.’ So I paralyzed my left side—not my right side, 
because I had to use it. That’s all. You pick out one or two things 
and don’t try to duplicate realistically all the symptoms.” 

“I think it’s important to get information,” Rose Marie says. 

“Observation. Particularization.” 

“Right. It’s like your talking about wearing the emerald dress 
to the White House. I don’t have to make a field trip to the White 
House or study all the emeralds at Cartier’s; all I have to think 
about is not having to serve cheeseburgers anymore. If I make it 
personal to me, the rest will follow.” 

Meisner nods in agreement. 

“So what have I clarified in the way of particularizations, as ifs? 
Catch yourself in real life. You’re constantly talking as if ‘When 
the secretary said the producer wanted to see me in his office, it 
was as if my heart stopped.’ See? ‘It was as if I felt myself break¬ 
ing into a cold sweat!’ You use them all the time. And it’s the 
particularization that makes the acting have a point. You were all 
here at the beginning when Beth read Miss Heilman’s lines very 
straight, with an overtone of sadness. It was no good. That’s what 
made me bring up particularization. Her reading was straight, 
and consequently meaningless. But if she had prepared and also 
had chosen apt particularizations, it would not be meaningless. 
The way I greeted you when I felt I loved to teach was quite 
different from the way I greeted you when I hated the job.” He 
pauses before adding, “So have I made any impression today?” 

“I think we did a lot today,” Bette says. 

“That’s a generalization,” Meisner says. 

“I’ll have to qualify it—” 

“A lot!” Meisner says, and the class laughs. 

“Seriously,” Meisner continues, “how does it feel to have an 
acting class and not act?” 

“It feels fine,” Anna says. 

“You liked it?” 

“It’s nice once in a while,” John says. “It reallyus.” 

“It’s rather like Stella Adler,” Rose Marie adds, and Meisner 
laughs. 

“Yes, Stella does a lot of talking. I love Stella,” Meisner says. 



THE MAGIC AS IF: PARTICULARIZATION 


145 


“I really do. She’s my best friend. She is! I learned an enormous 
amount from her. Do you know that at the end of her classes she 
turns to the hordes of students before her and says, ‘Do you love 
me?’ ” 

He raises his arms above his head and the class laughs and 
voices cry out, “Yes, yes!” 

“Swear it!” Meisner says. 

“I swear! I swear!” voices shout, and the class applauds as 
Meisner looks ecstatic. 


April 30 

“I told a couple last week that they had to have more conviction 
about their material and suggested that an apt particularization, 
an as if would deepen their playing. In the scene which we have 
just watched, the simple reality you had between you was very 
nice. It was definitely the behavior of two human beings. Shaw 
said, ‘Self-betrayal, magnified to suit the optics of the theater, is 
the whole art of acting.’ What does that mean?” 

“It means to find in yourself and reveal what’s true about the 
scene,” Anna says, “and to let it rise to a level where it communi¬ 
cates in a real way.” 

“Suppose you said to me, ‘I’m going to buy you a red tie from 
Countess Mara.’ Acting is the art of self-revelation, so I have to 
understand how I feel about red, because my answer in the script 
is ‘Not red!’ ” He turns to Bette. “Tell me you’re going to buy 
me a red tie from Countess Mara.” 

“Sandy,” Bette says, “I’m going to buy you a red tie from 
Countess Mara.” 

From looking delighted when hearing the first part of the line, 
Meisner grimaces on hearing the word “red.” His line bursts 
forth: “Not red!” 

“Blue?” Bette asks. 

Meisner smiles with pleasure and the class laughs. 

“Now, what did I just do?” 

“You found a reaction in yourself, something that was big 
enough—” 



146 


“Spontaneous, right? Tell me you’re going to invite me to 
dinner when you finish decorating your dining room, and that 
the main course is going to be artichokes.” 

“Sandy, when my dining room is finished, I’m going to invite 
you to dinner and the main course is going to be artichokes.” 

Again, from looking pleased, on hearing the word “artichokes” 
Meisner’s face contorts with displeasure. 

“You don’t like artichokes?” Bette asks. 

“That’s quite clear, right?” Meisner asks, and again the class 
laughs. “That is material raised to the optics of the theater, you 
follow?” 

“Yes.” • . ■ '■ 

“What do you follow?” 

“It’s not a little reaction. It’s a reaction that’s raised to a point 
where . . .” 

“. . . it needs to be. You have to know what you’re saying means 
to you. That, in large measure, is how you work on a part. You 
follow?” ■ ' ‘ \ ’ • 

“So you should explore a part for the things to which you can 
react personally?” Beth asks. 

“After you’ve achieved the basic reality. Let’s talk about this. 
Ray, what do you think?” 

“Well, what’s curious to me is that you said that this explora¬ 
tion should wait until after you’ve achieved the basic reality of 
the scene. It’s something I’d never thought of before and it 
seemed to make a lot of sense, because then you prevent yourself 
from making too much of something and falsifying it as a result. 
Am I understanding you correctly?” 

“Or from falling into a cliche.” 

“So if you can get the basic reality at the conversational level, 
and then discover the deeper meanings that fuel it with the optics 
of theater, it’s not built on a bed of cliches,” Ray says. 

“What does it mean, ‘the optics of the theater’?” 

“It means that when you put the real situation on the stage, 
you need to keep its reality so that it’s believable both to you and 
to the audience, but you have to raise it to a level above real life. 
Otherwise it doesn’t communicate.” 

“You’re talking about emotion?” Meisner asks. 



THE MAGIC AS IF PARTICULARIZATION 


147 


“Yeah, I guess. That’s part of it, but I was also thinking in 
terms of energy.” 

“Energy will come with it. The trouble with English actors is 
their use of energy. It’s got to be there, but they think of it as 
stage energy, with no emotional backbone, no support.” 

“So if you have the emotion first, the energy comes as a result 
of how deeply you feel the emotion, as opposed to going for an 
energy that has no base.” 

“Tell me again you’re going to buy me a tie.” 

“Sandy,” Bette says, “I’m going to buy you a red tie from 
Countess Mara.” 

This time Meisner’s face puckers and he says in a prissy voice, 
“Uh . . . red!” 

“See, this time I’m trying to do it all in my vocal intonation, 
whereas before when Bette said ‘a red tie’ it was as if she had said 
‘Hitler’ to me.” His expression is one of deep revulsion. “I’m 
overdoing this a little bit, but just a little. First the reality; that 
you have. Now the fullness with which you express yourself. To 
put this onstage it has to be the art of self-revelation raised to the 
optics—the eye, the level, call it what you like—of the theater. In 
this scene, for example, she asks you if you have sex with your 
husband, doesn’t she? What’s your answer?” 

“That it’s only animal,” Anna says. 

“You’re so right,” Meisner says with an expression of mild 
disgust. “You follow? That’s basically an organic reading. What 
does that mean, an ‘organic reading’?” 

“No chemicals,” Bette says, “no preservatives.” 

“No bullshit,” Ray says. 

“No bullshit,” Meisner repeats. “That’s the higher criticism.” 
The class laughs. “So the problem is solved if you just make sure 
you know how you feel about what you’re talking about. You 
know, I find this very difficult to make clear: how you express 
yourself with a full meaning. Next time I plan to do the Spoon 
River Anthology with you. Then you’ll see something!” 

“I think everybody’s afraid of doing anything phony,” Rose 
Marie says, “so the tendency is to underplay—” 

“So I’m egging you on!” 



“Making the Part Your Own” 

meisner: The American actor is very lucky. Why? 
Because so little is asked of him. 


May 3 

“Is everybody here?” Meisner says as he quickly enters the class¬ 
room. Scott Roberts surveys the room and nods. “Good,” 
Meisner says and sits behind his desk. “Let’s start easily. Today 
we are going to begin to work with texts taken from Edgar Lee 
Masters’ collection of poems called The Spoon River Anthology. For 
our acting purposes these are not poems, nor are they in any 
sense to be taken as monologues or solo performances. Instead, 
we should consider them as speeches in a play which are 
preceded by a cue that I’ll describe in a minute. Ray, which one 
have you chosen?” 

“I have about five which I haven’t decided among.” 

“Decide.” 




'.(^“Immediately?” 

“Immediately. The simplest one. The one that’s most you.” 
“I’m not so sure what you mean by ‘simple.’ ” 

“One that’s simple, personal, and that you have a genuine 
feeling for.” 

“Okay,” Ray says. “I’ll read ‘Robert Southey Burke.’ ” He sits 
on a gray metal folding chair in the center of the acting area and 
begins to read in a clear, quiet voice: 

“I spent my money trying to elect you Mayor, 

A. D. Blood. 

I lavished my admiration upon you, 

You were to my mind the almost perfect man. 

You devoured my personality, 

And the idealism of my youth, 

And the strength of a high-souled fealty. 

And all my hopes for the world, 

And all my beliefs in Truth, 

Were smelted up in the blinding heat 
Of my devotion to you, 

And molded into your image. 

And then when I found what you were: 

That your soul was small 

And your words were false 

As your blue-white porcelain teeth, 

And your cuffs of celluloid, 

. I hated the love I had for you, 

I hated myself, I hated you 

For my wasted soul, and wasted youth. 

And I say to all, beware of ideals, 

Beware of giving your love away 
To any man alive.” 

“Okay,” Meisner says. “Now, the cue for that speech in a play 
could be, ‘Ray, why did you turn so suddenly against’—what’s 
his name?” 

“Blood. A. D. Blood,” Ray says. 

“—‘A. D. Blood, when once you adored him? Such a question 



150 


could be asked of you; and that speech is your answer to the 
question.” - 

“So I make up the question that’s the cue?” 

“Who’s your partner?” 

“Rose Marie.” „ > 

“She could ask you the question. What’s your answer? 

“This speech?” Ray asks. 

“Yes. It’s not a monologue. It is an answer to a question, 
right?” 

“Yes.”' " 

“Well, just for the fun of it, Rose Marie, ask him why he turned 
so against A. D. Blood. Ray, you put the book down and answer 
her.” 

“Why did you turn so against A. D. Blood? Rose Marie asks. 

“Because I spent all my money trying to get him elected 
mayor,” Ray says in an intense, even and quickly inflected voice. 
“I thought he was the greatest politician in the world and I 
worked real hard for him. Then I discovered what a fake he really 
was, and when I found it out I hated the fact that I had liked him 
so much. I hated myself for thinking he was a good person and 
for not knowing the truth.” 

“Okay,” Meisner says. “That’s the beginning of the idea. Ray, 
what are the last two lines of the speech?” 

Ray picks up the book from the floor and finds the poem. 

“ ‘And I say to all, beware of ideals, / Beware of giving your love 
away / To any man alive.’ ” 

“How do you feel about that?” 

“It’s harsh! I feel betrayed and angry.” 

“Could you prepare for that?” 

“Yes.” 

“Okay. Listen, everybody. The emotional essence of each of 
these speeches usually comes in the last two lines. In this case it s 
/ hate fake idols! Right?” 

“Right,” Ray says. “Now I know what you mean by a personal 
response to it.” 

“Good. Now I’ll show you something, and let’s see if it means 
anything to you. Let’s imagine I have a short speech in a play, 
which I’ll deliver in a moment. It’s hard for me to laugh, but here 




"MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 151 

goes.” Instantly Meisner looks as if he is delighted by something 
wondrous and claps his hands in pleasure. 

“My speech begins, ‘I was in the worst taxi accident of my life! 
Two people were killed!’ Then, after more laughter and more 
words, I get to the last line, which is, ‘But I came out safe and 
so did my companion!’ The emotional essence is in the last line, 
and once you have prepared that gaiety, then you start the speech, 
even though the first line of it is ‘I was in the worst taxi accident 
of my life!’ In these texts it’s the last two lines which determine 
the emotional color of the whole piece. To continue with this 
example, suppose your partner says to you in the scene, ‘You’re 
always so happy. Why are you always laughing?’ Your response 
is, ‘I was in the worst taxi accident of my life!’ And then, eventu¬ 
ally, ‘And I thank God I’m alive!' Do you follow the logic of what 
I’m talking about?” 

Ray nods. 

“Okay, rehearse with Rose Marie. She’ll have one too. You get 
the preparation from the last two lines, and then invent—just for 
the exercise—a simple cue that motivates the speech. Let me 
repeat: this has to be treated like a speech in a play, with a cue 
and then an answer. It is not a solo.” 

“So when I say the words that appear on the page, I say them 
to Rose Marie?” 

“Yes. You make clear to her why you’re so bitterly angry. So 
what do you start with?” he asks Rose Marie. 

“You start with a preparation based on the last two lines of the 
speech.” 

“And you take your time preparing,” Meisner adds. “Then 
you improvise the speech, making a response in your own words 
which contains as least some of the elements of the speech. Then 
prepare and read the actual text. Improvise, then read it, then 
improvise—always with a preparation. Next class I won’t ask 
you to do the actual speech. You won’t do it until I sense that you 
have a secure emotional grasp of the material. You must make a 
reality of that speech—make it your own—by giving it a real 
preparation derived from the end of the speech and then relating 
its content in your own words to your partner. Any questions?” 

“Yes,” Rose Marie says. “In that speech about A. D. Blood, can 



Ray do it for the purpose of the improvisation without eWn 
mentioning A. D. Blood?” ' - vr* 

“Of course!” : ■ 

“He could just say something like, ‘I hate it when people treaty 
me unfairly’?” T:|f 

“Right! The speech is not about A. D. Blood. The speech is |j| 
about false idols, right?” - ; | 

The class nods. i| 

“All right, Ray, sit down,” Meisner says. “Beth, have you got J 

one?” ” . ' 

Beth comes forward. Her luxurious hair is tied back and she _ i 
is wearing gray slacks. She sits and begins to read the poem Ida y 
Frickey”: , ,2 


“Nothing in life is alien to you: 

I was a penniless girl from Summum 
Who stepped from the morning train in Spoon River. 
All the houses stood before me with closed doors 
And drawn shades—I was barred out; 

I had no place or part in any of them. 

And I walked past the old McNeely mansion, 

A castle of stone ’mid walks and gardens, 

With workmen about the place on guard, 

And the County and State upholding it 
For its lordly owner, full of pride. 

I was so hungry I had a vision: 

I saw a giant pair of scissors 

Dip from the sky, like the beam of a dredge, 

And cut the house in two like a curtain. 

But at the ‘Commercial’ I saw a man, 

Who winked at me as I asked for work— 

It was Wash McNeely’s son. 

He proved the link in the chain of title 
To half my ownership of the mansion, 

Through a breach of promise suit—the scissors. 

So, you see, the house, from the day I was born, 

Was only waiting for me.” 




Pp&What's that speech about? Don’t give a lecture. Tell us in your 
flown words about a personal experience.” 

pr* “It’s about going into a place and feeling isolated and locked 
out, but having a vision that somehow you belong there and 
. helping, through your own work, to open the doors, to make the 
place home—proving that it was home all the time.” 

“That’s not what the.speech is about,” Meisner says. “Look, I’ll 
do it for you.” His face lights up in a delighted smile. “I got off 
a train in a strange town,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody, and 
nobody knew me. It was early in the morning and I walked and 
passed a great big mansion. I was so hungry that I had a vision of 
the house being cut in half by a giant pair of scissors! I went into 
the hotel and some guy there winked at me, so what do you think 
I did? I winked back! He bought me something to eat. We went 
to bed together, and eventually he promised to marry me. But 
when he didn’t, I sued the pants off him! And I was awarded the 
mansion! Me! Which only goes to prove that nothing you wish for 
in this life is going to remain foreign to you! Isn’t that wonder¬ 
ful?” 

His enjoyment of the speech is infectious and the class laughs 
delightedly. 

“That’s what that speech means, you see?” 

“Yes,” Beth says. 

“What’s the emotional preparation for that speech, do you 
think?” 

“To me it’s that anything’s possible. It’s a dream, imagining 
it—” 

“That’s not an emotion; that’s a sentence. Are you ticklish?” 

“Not really.” 

He points to Bette, who is sitting in the front row of chairs. 
“Go tickle her,” he commands. “Tickle her!” 

Bette approaches Beth and, reaching around her from behind, 
begins to tickle her waist. 

“Really!” Beth says. “I’m not ticklish!” She begins to laugh a 
large, genuine laugh and the whole class joins in. 

“Now,” Meisner says. “Tell her the story! Hurry up!” 

“I got off the tra-han-ain,” Beth exclaims, “and I saw this 
gorgeous mansion! And, oh, God, I was so hungry! I started 



154 


walking to the inn to ask for work—” At this point, Bette joins 
in the laughter delightedly. “And I met this guy there and he 
happened to be the owner of the mansion!” The two women 
laugh with increased pleasure. “And. he promised to marry me, 
and when he didn’t,” Beth continues, “I sued him for every cent 
he had! And do you know what?” Beth asks, and Bette shakes her 
head. “I won!” They laugh warmly together for a few seconds 
more. 

“What does that prove?” Meisner asks. 

“If I’m ticklish,” Beth says happily, “anything’s possible!” 

“Are you beginning to get the idea?” Meisner asks the class. 

“So,” says John, “what we use from the last couple of lines, we 
use right from the first word? At first I thought we were to 
prepare for that but were to keep it only for the last couple of 
lines. But you want the whole thing done that way, right?” 

“What was my example about the taxi accident?” 

“It was right from the beginning.” 

Almost as if intoxicated, Bette and Beth burst into laughter 
again. 

“Hold on to that until next Monday!” Meisner says, and the 
class laughs. “Dave? Did you choose one?” 

“Yes.” 

“Let’s hear it.” 

Dave reads “Dr. Siegfried Iseman” in a loud, clear voice: 

“I said when they handed me my diploma, 

I said to myself I will be good 

And wise and brave'and helpful to others; 

I said I will carry the Christian creed 

Into the practice of medicine! 

Somehow the world and the other doctors 

Know what’s in your heart as soon as you make 

This high-souled resolution. 

And the way of it is they starve you out. 

And no one comes to you but the poor. 

And you find too late that being a doctor 

Is just a way of making a living. 

And when you are poor and have to carry 



"MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 


155 


The Christian creed and wife and children 

All on your back, it is too much! 

That’s why I made the Elixir of Youth, 

Which landed me in jail at Peoria 

Branded a swindler and a crook 

By the upright Federal Judge!” 

“What are the last two lines?” Meisner asks. 

“Well, the last four lines are: ‘That’s why I made the Elixir of 
Youth, / Which landed me in jail at Peoria / Branded a swindler 
and a crook / By the upright Federal Judge!’ ” 

“How do you feel about that?” 

“Resentful.” 

“What’s stronger than resentful?” 

“Hate.” 

“All right. What else do you feel?” 

“That it’s a joke.” 

“What kind of a joke?” 

“That there’s no such thing as being ‘upright.’ ” 

“Wait a minute. What did you observe in Beth’s exercise?” 

“That her preparation—the laughing—got her involved in 
what she was doing.” 

“What was the meaning of my being funny when I said, ‘I was 
in the greatest taxi accident ever!' What did you observe about 
that?” 

“That you were saying one thing and were feeling another.” 

“True enough.” Meisner pauses for a moment. “What are you 
going to do about the almost insane bitterness of this man? I say 
this man is almost insane in his impotence. The cue for this 
speech is very simple. ‘Good God, Dave, how did you ever land 
in jail?’ When you work with Sarah at home, take a couple of 
pencils and break them into a thousand pieces as a release for 
your venom, and when you have that, then, tell Sarah in your 
own words how you happened to land in jail. Do you follow?” 

“Yes.” 

“Listen, people, I just gave him a character to play. He doesn’t 
have to change his face; he doesn’t have to shave off his mous¬ 
tache; he doesn’t need an accent. He needs only one thing: murder 



in his heart. He’s insane. Do you get that? Character comes from " 
how you do what you do. It’s not easy to give release to that kind 
of venom.” 

Meisner pauses for a moment. “You know, there’s another way 
you could play this—in tears, crying, broken down by the trag¬ 
edy of your life. So far, you’ve all picked such emotionally com¬ 
plicated ones. There are simple ones in this book. But if you 
understood Beth’s hearty laughter—that’s the essence of this ex¬ 
ercise. Mary, your turn.” 

Mary Franc, a blond woman in her late forties, has been an 
auditor in the class from its beginning. With the expulsion of 
Vincent, she has joined the group of active students. “This is 
‘Hannah Armstrong,’ ” she says. 

“I wrote him a letter asking him for old times’ sake 
To discharge my sick boy from the army; 

But maybe he couldn’t read it. 

Then I went to town and had James Garber, 

Who wrote beautifully, write him a letter; i 

But maybe that was lost in the mails. 

So I traveled all the way to Washington. 

I was more than an hour finding the White House. 

And when I found it they turned me away, 

Hiding their smiles. Then I thought: 

‘Oh, well, he ain’t the same as when I boarded him 
And he and my husband worked together 
And all of us called him Abe, there in Menard.’ 

As a last attempt I turned to a guard and said: , 

‘Please say it’s old Aunt Hannah Armstrong 
From Illinois, come to see him about her sick boy 1 

In the army.’ .. 

Well, just in a moment they let me in! 

And when he saw me he broke into a laugh, -3 

And dropped his business as president, J 

And wrote in his own hand Doug’s discharge, J 

Talking the while of the early days, Vi 

And telling stories.” 31 



MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 1 5 7 

“Okay,” Meisner says, “I’m going to give you an interpreta¬ 
tion. From the speech we learn that Lincoln was a good man, 
right? A sweet man—helpful, human. What are the last two 
lines?” 

“The last two lines are: ‘Talking the while of the early days, 
/ And telling stories.’ ” 

“So what do you feel about that?” 

“I feel like she’s—” 

“You! You!” 

“That I’m glad to find out that this great man remembers me.” 

“That’s the story. He remembers you. That has emotional im¬ 
plications.” 

“It makes me feel proud and loving.” 

“All right, I’m going to show you something. I want you to 
imagine an experience that was so good and so sweet and so much 
a tribute to the goodness of human beings that you can’t think 
about it without crying. Don’t look for a real experience; I doubt 
whether you’ll find it. Go to your imagination, and come up with 
a human kindness which is so rare that you can’t think about it 
without crying. When you’re fully prepared, tell that story to 
Ralph. Do you follow?” 

Mary nods uncertainly. 

“It’s as if I said, ‘You know, I can’t think of my mother without 
wanting to break down. I’ll tell you a story about the kind of 
person she was. . . .’ That’s what I’m doing, except now my text 
is: ‘I was in terrible trouble and I remembered my old friend, 
Abraham Lincoln, so I went to visit him. They finally let me in. 
There he was, just as he used to be. It’s heartbreaking now that 
he’s dead.’ I involve myself emotionally in something which I 
respond to, such as the sweetness and goodness of some people. 
It’s as if the whole speech was held together by ‘I’ll tell you a 
story of what an angel he was.’ And if you let yourself alone emotion¬ 
ally, something will happen. Now, if you can follow that, then 
you prepare and float on what you’ve got, and in your own words 
tell it to your partner. Right?” 

“Right,” Mary says. 

“You pick such difficult ones!” 

“They’re all difficult,” Mary says. 



“They’re notv You’ll see. Joseph Morgan, what have you got? 
‘“Harry Wilmans.’ ' S 

“Read it.” - . . ■: 

“I was just turned twenty-one, 

And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent, 
Made a speech in Bindle’s Opera House. 

‘The honor of the flag must be upheld,’ he said, 

‘Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs 
Or the greatest power in Europe.’ 

And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he 
waved 

As he spoke. 

And I went to the war in spite of my father, 

And followed the flag till I saw it raised 
By our camp in a rice field near Manila, 

And all of us cheered and cheered it. 

But there were flies and poisonous things; 

And there was the deadly water, 

And the cruel heat, ' 

And the sickening, putrid food; 

And the smell of the trench just back of the tents 
Where the soldiers went to empty themselves; 

And there were the whores who followed us, full of 
syphilis; 

And beastly acts between ourselves or alone, 

With bullying, hatred, degradation among us, 

And days of loathing and nights of fear 

To the hour of'the charge through the steaming swamp, 

Following the flag, 

Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts. 

Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River! 

A flag! A flag!” 

“What do you feel about the last two lines?” Meisner asks. 

“I feel that I could kill somebody for taking my life from me.” 
“Are you furious?” 

“I went to war for them and they killed me.” 



I'mAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 


159 


“They made a gullible fool out of you, didn’t they?” 
“Yeah.” 


“How do you feel about that?” 

“Like I want to kill somebody. Like I want to kill Henry 
Phipps. Like I could scream. ” Joseph bangs his fist onto his leg. 

“So do it next time in your own words—scream it! You made 
a fool of yourself, didn’t you? A. jackass! How would you feel if 
your were fifteen and you went to a Christmas party and said, 
‘But where’s Santa Claus?’ and everybody was rolling on the floor 
laughing at you. How would you feel?” 

. “I’d feel stupid.” 

“How would you feel if they gave you a stuffed Santa Claus for 
your seventeenth birthday?” 

“I’d want to hit somebody!” 

“ That's the way you begin. Are you following the logic of 
this?” he asks the class and they nod. “How come you have a flag 
on your grave when nobody else does? Put the book away!” 

“Because to me it’s something they did as an empty symbol for 
having given my life to the country.” 

“What happened?” 

“I was shot.” 

“What’s the beginning of it—in your own words.” 

“Well, I went to hear a pompous ass stand up and make a 
speech about how we have to defend the country, and I was 
young and believed what he said. So I went off and joined the 
army—” 

“I think there is more self-hatred than that. ‘I hate what I did. 
I hate what they put me through. I bate what they did to me when 
I came back!’ Does that mean anything to you?” 

“Yeah.” ; 

“When it comes right down to it, it’s Joseph Morgan’s emotion. 
It’s Joseph Morgan absolutely beside himself. When it comes 
down to it, it’s always you. What did I just say to you?” 

“That the emotion comes from me.” 

“Do you have a temper?” 

“Yes, I do.” 

“Then, where does the control come from?” 

“Probably it’s from the way I was raised.” 



160 

‘I hate parents!” Meisner exclaims and the class laughs. ‘‘How 
would you like to be operated on without an anesthetic?” 

“No, thank you.” 

“That’s what this is, Joe. That’s what this is.” 

May 7 . • '■■■■■ ■ ", 

“You people are judging material from your heads, not from your 
hearts. You judge from what you understand, and because all of 
you, unfortunately, have been to college there are no words in 
these texts that are difficult for you to understand.” 

“Would you rather I picked something else?” Sarah asks. She 
has just read a philosophical poem about an elderly milliner. 

Something simple,” Meisner says. “Something that makes 
you laugh or cry or get angry. I’m talking about emotions! Have 
you got another?” 

“Well, I’d rather put it off until Monday if that’s all right with 
you.” ' 

“Sure. Listen, people, when I was twenty or thereabouts, my 
favorite composer was Chopin.. Romantic, melodious, emotional. 
And my friend, Aaron Copland, used to die with laughter because 
he liked composers who were avant-garde, atonal and dissonant. I 
was smart. He wasn’t. Who knows, that may have been smart for 
him, but what I liked was right for me. I wish I had a piano here so 
I could show you.” He begins to play a lush, Chopinesque melody 
on the top of his desk. “Gorgeous! I say, pick from your heart! ;! 
Don’t pick from your head! Why not be simple? -What’s the crime 
in being simple?” : He pauses for a moment. “You know, my big- I 
gest job in teaching you as actors is to bring you together with 
yourself. That’s the root of creative acting.” He turns to Ray. 
What are you learning from the Spoon River exercises?” /: 

Ray says, “The thing that’s coming home to me is how you 
make this material your own. If we do it first in our own words 
and are fully prepared, then it’s an easier jump to the actual 
words of the piece. And when we make the jump, the words of 
the text are like our own and we’re less hampered by them. They 
come from us. ” 



"WAKING THE PART YOUR OWN” 1 6 1 

“Did Chopin compose music in order to imitate Mozart?” 
Meisner asks. 

“I say he didn’t,” Ray says. 

“Well, who did he imitate?” 

“I think he wrote to make music that pleased him. He was 
writing from his own instinct and spirit.” 

“His own what?” 

“Instinct and spirit—his soul.” 

“Do you know the painter Cezanne? Did he paint to imitate 
Rembrandt? He didn’t? Are you sure? Who did he imitate?” 

“He didn’t imitate anyone.” 

“What did he do?” 

“He painted for himself.” 

“Where did he get his ideas?” 

“From his instincts, his imagination.” 

“Who did Duse imitate? Well, you never saw her. What’s the 
point I’m making?” 

“That your work comes from within yourself,” Beth says. 
“Even though the material already exists, the life you bring to it 
is your own. It’s unique for each person who does it.” 

“You know,” Meisner says, “learning to act takes time. It’s 
made out of the human being who’s doing the work. Each of you 
in your own way has certain human elements which are on the 
surface and are easy to play. Other elements are more difficult, 
but whatever you get from every exercise is part of your learning 
and improvement. You know, if you were a painter or a musi¬ 
cian, you’d choose material because it already meant something 
to you, but in acting you have a much more difficult problem. 
More often than not you’re given material which is not related 
to you, and you have to learn how to make it your own. You have 
to learn how to use yourselves as actors. There are very few 
character actors. There should be more, but actors today don’t 
know how to make use of what doesn’t come spontaneously to 
them. Television is a perfect example of your playing that deep,” 
—he holds his thumb and index finger together before him— 
“according to the way you look.” 

“What instrument do you'play?” Meisner asks Beth. 

“I don’t,” Beth says. 



162 

“You just want to be a star?” 

“I’m a writer.” 

“You’re a writer?” 

“Yes, I play the typewriter.” 

“Who do you imitate?” 

“Nobody.” 

“What does it mean when you say an artist is original?” 

“It means that he works from within himself,” Joseph 
says. 

“Are you learning that here?” 

“Yes.” 

“What does it mean, to work from within yourself?” 

“To express yourself impulsively, not to think about what it 
is that you’re doing or watch yourself self-consciously.” 

“To express yourself impulsively. According to what stan¬ 
dard?” 

“Of being true to yourself.” 

“That’s right,” Meisner says. He pauses to adjust his micro¬ 
phone. “What does it mean that you can’t be an actor and a 
gentleman?” ' 

Joseph says, “You’re allowed to do things onstage that you 
don’t do in life. You’re permitted to express yourself on stage and 
don’t need to hold yourself back as you must in life.” 

“What does it mean, ‘to hold yourself back?’ ” 

“To censor yourself. Society sets the standard, but that has 
nothing to do with acting.” 

“That’s true, but what do you mean?” 

“Acting doesn’t have anything to do with everyday life.” 

“It has to do with truth,” Meisner says. 

“It has to do with truth, yeah,” Joseph says, “but it doesn’t have 
anything to do with conventional life outside the theatfer.” 

“'I hat’s true. I’ve heard Maureen Stapleton at a party talk like 
a cultured woman. Who’s she kidding? That’s not what she lives 
by on the stage.” 

“Well, they’re two different things.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, you bring your special self, your actor’s self, to your 
work, and it’s different from the way.you are outside.” 



“MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 


163 


“You bring your real self, right?” 

“Your truthful self,” Joseph says. 

“That’s why you should never pick material in response to 
your ambition or your intellect. You should pick material that 
comes out of your gut. Unless you need a job,” Meisner adds, and 

the class laughs. 


May 10 

“Which one?” Meisner asks Bette. 

•'I was going to ask you about it," she says. “A woman who mar¬ 
ried about eight times who ends up in Pans and gets poisoned. 
“I don’t think that one’s right for you.” 

“Okay,” Bette says. “The one I really liked was Elsa Wer - 

man.’ ” 

“Do it.” 

Bette sits down and begins to read: 


“I was a peasant girl from Germany, 

Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong. 

And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene s. 


On a summer’s day when she was away 
He stole into the kitchen and took me 
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat, 

I turning my head. Then neither of us 
Seemed to know what happened. 

And I cried for what would become of me. 

And cried and cried as my secret began to show. 
One day Mrs. Greene said she understood, 

And would make no trouble for me, 

And, being childless, would adopt it. 

(He had given her a farm to be still.) 

So she hid in the house and sent out rumors, 

As if it were going to happen to her. 

And all went well and the child was born— I hey 

kind to me. 

Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed. 


were so 



164 


frying 31 P0HtiCal rallies when sitt ers-by thought I was 

At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene— 

That was not it. 

No! I wanted to say: 

‘That’s my son! That’s my son!’ ” 

“How do you feel about those last two lines?” 

They kill me.” 

“All right, prepare to be killed! Start crying! Start crying and 
when yo. have trouble controlling it, tell u/the story"• *' 
m Without a pause Bette says, “Okay. I came over from Get- 

No! You’re not prepared ” 

“Xw su^Melsn:: 1% h™" ^ 

“I came from Germany when I was very young ” Bette savs 

Wkh HamUtoTc 8 d ° W T!! er Che ' kS ' " And tbe firs t i ob 1 had ™ 

she went out an7h y Were Very nice people - but one day 

.° f ut and he came *nto the kitchen and—” 

out JL yo“fre er fe e enngm S enC ° Ura * i "* 1 ^ °kay » cry. Let 

He came into the kitchen and he started to kiss me and I 

s P o“f t- 7d* e r y and he kiSSed me 0n my " eck " She » oryhlg 
oftly. 1 don t know what happened after that, but I got vrj 

was happenmg “> aShamed ' Then She Said She “"^‘ood what 

“Cry more!” Meisner says. “Don't be afraid to let yourself go'" 

wo^ld keenThe h T 'l^ 9 movin S l >'' “She said she 

keep the baby, and so she told everybody that she was 

pregnant and she stayed in the house for nine months. And I had 

he baby and she took him!” Because of the weeping her voice 

has become very thin and high. “And now, when Fgo to political 

herself P3USeS m 3n eff °« t0 control 

tell L Z/J ery n y ^ t K inkS 1>m Cryin ^ because he speaks so 1 

hat s not it. It s because I want to say,‘That’s my son. 



“MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 


165 


That’s my son!’ ” She covers her face with her hands and contin¬ 
ues to sob. 

“That’s right,” Meisner says. “Well, the defects are technical, 
purely technical. We can’t understand you.” 

“Okay,” Bette says and begins to laugh. 

“That 's what I’m talking about! Do it in your own words, and 
after you’ve done it, go through the script as written, then go 
back to the free improvisation—always prepared.” 

“Even when reading it?” Bette asks. 

“Even when reading it and when telling it. Both.” 

“But I shouldn’t look in the book to check some words?” 

“No! They’ll gradually come to you.” 


May 14 

“In your own words, tell the class about yourself.” 

“I became very ill,” Rachael says in a subdued voice, “which 
left me a shell of myself.” 

“What kind of surgery? Don’t guess, it’s quite obvious.” 

“Cancer.” 

“You left the hospital a shell of yourself, which is the way 
cancer leaves you. Tell them the story as it occurs to you.” 

“I had cancer and I had surgery for it, which left me just a part 
of myself. On my wedding anniversary, when I felt that I was 
somewhat myself again, my husband and I went for a walk in the 
woods. We talked about everything but what we were really 
feeling, and we tried to act as if everything was as it always had 
been. But it wasn’t the same. And it depressed me more when 
he”—she begins to cry softly—“when he left me alone for a few 
minutes, and I saw myself in the mirror and realized that I was 
really half-dead! And that I might as well be completely dead!” 
She is crying fully, the tears streaming from her eyes. “So I killed 
myself, and I wondered if he ever understood why.” 

“That’s nice,” Meisner says after a few moments, when Ra¬ 
chael’s emotion begins to subside. “What you ended with is what 
you should prepare for and then begin with. The preparation has 
something very concrete; it has to do with a once young, hopeful 



KTi^sThoMh her life is realIy over and how she f'-" 1 * 

ro.e, not 

he d. d z?zz r°r d ? 

“,o£“ Andd -:' **■> -tifthe e m „;r sub y s “ re 1 

wo Wh“ I ptact.ce ,t, do you wan, tne to do i, in my own 

^c=;;,rs=r- skm: 

Rachael looks pleased and the class laughs. -I 

■» 

May 17 


“Which one is it?” 

Another suicide,” Rose Marie says. “ ‘Julia Miller ’ Sh , i 
n.otph.n. She, , hir t y years oid J ntar^,“ 

“We quarreled that morning, 

For he was sixty-five, and I was thirty 

And I was nervous and heavy with the child 
Whose birth I dreaded. 

I thought over the last letter written me 
Ry that estranged young soul 
Whose betrayal of me I had concealed 
By marrying the old man. 

Then I took morphine and sat down to read 
Across the blackness that came over my eyes 
see the flickering light of these words even now 
And Jesus said unto him, Verily 
I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt 
Be with me in paradise.’ ” 


:<a 



“MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 


16 7 


“That’s a difficult one. Why is it difficult?” < 

“The text is based on the hope that there will be something 
better for me and my baby in heaven.” 

“Do you hope or do you know?” 

“I know. God will be there.” 

“How do you feel about it?” 

“I feel relieved. I’m scared, but I’m also relieved.” 

. “Relieved?” 

“I feel almost happy. They can’t touch me anymore.” 

“That’s difficult,” Meisner says. “Anything that has to do with 
religious pleasure is very difficult to act. I’ll tell you a story as an 
example of what it might mean. In Florence, Italy, there’s an old 
monastery, and in it you go up a flight of steps and at the top 
there’s a landing, and on the far wall there’s a mural. What I saw 
there was the angel telling the Virgin Mary about the future 
birth of Christ. But it was so human, so inspired! Mary’s face! I 
still see it very clearly. She’s still—” 

“Are you saying you saw a painting or you saw a vision?” Rose 
Marie asks. 

“I saw a painting by Fra Angelico called The Annunciation. My 
suggestion is that you treat this speech as if it were a prayer in 
which you, having taken morphine, know you’re going to die and 
that you’re going to heaven. There life is going to be full of 
wonderful peace and quiet for you. That’s quite a problem. Do 
you want to do it?” 

“Yep.” 

“The preparation has to do with what?” 

“Absolute, blinding joy, tears of joy that I’m finally getting the 
one thing I want.” 

“And what would that be?” 

“Pure happiness.” 

“Okay. Don’t talk about it any more. In this speech that’s 
comparable to the angel’s announcement to Mother Mary that 
she’s going to give birth to Christ. It’s a prayer of joy!” 

“Then the morphine is a blessing?” 

“Yes, that’s a good way to look at it. I hate to talk about it because 
it’s so delicate, but in the hush, in the quiet of a rare moment of joy, 
you open your heart. Does that touch anything in you?” 



168 


“Yes.” 

“Are you going to do it now?” 

• ^ b tr y **•» ^ ose Marie says, and after a moment she continues. 

He can t touch me anymore. He can’t get near me. I don’t even 
know why I married him. Yeah, I know why I married him.” She 1 
is crying quietly. “He . . . saved me from what I couldn’t take. 
The young man didn’t want me anymore, so—” Her emotion 
renders the rest of the phrase unintelligible. “I’m nervous, but 
I’m.not really . . .” Because of the crying, her speech is unclear. 
‘Because I know that, this time,, right now, I’m coming home! I 
see the black before my eyes, but I’m not afraid of that either. 
Because I remember reading—I can’t even see the page—I re¬ 
member reading that very soon I’ll be home, and my baby will 
be with me. And nobody can .... nobody can ever hurt me again!” 

“That’s the idea. I was thinking that it’s as if it were a prayer 
to the one saint you believe in. Are you a good Catholic?” 

I m lapsed, but there was a time when I prayed to the saints ” 

• “Work on that.” 


May 21 ' 

was sick ’ but more than that I was mad at the police and at the 
crooked game of life—” 

“What’s that mean?” 

That they cheated and lied, that they’re hypocrites, and I’m 
going to expose them,” Rachael says. “They’re covering up ” 
“For whom?” .... . 

“For the rich guy I shot and killed.” 

What was he doing in your room?” 

“I was a prostitute.” 

“Go on.” 

So i wrote to the chief of police in Peoria, ‘I’m here in my 
girlhood home of Spoon River gradually wasting away. But come 
and take me. I killed the son of the merchant prince in Madam 
Lew’s. The newspapers that said he killed himself in his home 
while cleaning a hunting gun lied like the devil to hush up the 
scandal for the bribe of advertising.” 



169 


“MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 

“For what?” 

“The newspapers were bribed. His father owns the town. 

“ G ° on.” , 

“I shot him at Madam Lew’s because he knocked me down 
when I said that in spite of all the money he had, I was going to 
see my lover that night. I insulted him, so he knocked me down 
and I shot him.” 

“And who was your lover?” 

The question has not occurred to Rachel, and she is at a loss 
for words. 

“It doesn’t say in the text. You’ve got to make it up out of your 
imagination,” Meisner says. “Look here. The questions I’m ask¬ 
ing you are not technical questions as such; they’re imaginative 
questions. This is part of a process called ‘making the part your 
own.’ Suppose that you had told this rich man’s son, ‘I’m not 
going to sleep with you tonight. I’m going to sleep with Tony, 
who drives your father’s coal truck. He's my real lover, not you! 
And when you taunted him with this, he got so furious that he 
dropped the gun. You picked it up and shot him. But the police 
and newspapers are so corrupt that they’d never report such a 
scandal. Do you remember what they did when Rockefeller 
died?” 

“I was thinking about that the whole time,” Bette says. 

“The hypocrisy, the deceit, the corruption of the newspapers 
sickened you, right? Finally, since you’re dying anyhow, you say, 
‘Here’s the truth, you bastards!’ This strikes me as someone tak¬ 
ing revenge with such relish—” 

“Very pleased with herself,” Rachael says. 

“Very! ‘Everybody knows you’re a crook and nobody wants to 
tell you but me. Now go do something about it!’ You see? This 
is ‘making the part your own.’ The process of filling a cold text 
with your life is what this process is in a nutshell.” 

“Sandy,” Bette says. “I loved what you just did with Rachael. 
Those are the questions that I have to learn how to ask.” 

“That’s the way you work on a part. Work on these speeches 
has everything to do with interpretation. My provocative remark 
is that by doing the Spoon Rivers you all should have learned 
something very substantial and clarified about how you approach 


a character. Suppose an actor who was about to play Othello said 1 
to the director, ‘Explain this jealousy thing to me.’ What does 
that imply?” 

“I’d think that he should never play the part,” Bette says. 

“No doubt about that. How does one know that Othello is about 
great love and great jealousy?” 

“You read the text and it hits you,” Beth says. “It hits some¬ 
thing 'in you.” • 

“It hits you. I like that phrase. It hits you. There are some 
people in this class who are very concerned with the problem of 
character. But what is character? How do you answer that ques¬ 
tion?” : •. .. . .. :... . .. . 

“Why are you looking at me?” John asks. 

“Your questions have concerned me because to me they mean 
that you have an inorganic preoccupation with character. What 
does that mean? ‘Inorganic preoccupation with character’?” 

“It’s mental,” Bette says. 

“Where do you get it from?” 

“Your brain. From outside.” 

“Where should you get it frbm?” 

“Your guts.” 

“What you do and how you feel about the script which makes 
you do what you do determines the character. I would think that 
the Spoon River pieces have contributed hugely to your knowl¬ 
edge of how you find the character in you. Let’s talk about charac¬ 
ter. Let’s see what this means to you. I once asked you out of the 
sheer devilment that’s a part of me, ‘How many of you are not 
learning anything?’ Do you remember? Do you remember Vin¬ 
cent, who said he wasn’t?” 

“I’ll never forget it,” Bette says. 

“And what did I do? I threw him out. So you saw two sides of 
my character. My mischievousness and my conceit. Character, 
you can say, is determined by what you do.” 

“And how you do it, right?” Rose Marie asks. 

“That depends on you and your imagination. The emotion 
comes with how you’re doing what you’re doing. If you go from 
moment to moment, and each moment has a meaning for you, the 
emotion keeps flowing. L would sum it up by saying that the 



jpl’MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 1 7 1 

interpretation is best found in what really moves you. Not com¬ 
plicated, not necessarily original. You. It’s you. And I think that 
much has been learned from this work on the Spoon Rivers, don’t 
■ you?” 

May 24 


“What’s the matter?” Meisner asks Ray. 

“I felt on the spot, so I was a little uncomfortable, though I 
forgot about you.” 

“Oh, to hell with me. Listen, you played the villain in The 
Octoroon. Do you know what that is?” 

“I don’t know what The Octoroon is. I assumed when I did the 
poem that it was some pageant that happened around Hallow¬ 
een.” 

“No, it’s a famous play with a wonderful villain. Make them 
laugh by the way you do that line.” 

“ ‘I played the coronet and I painted pictures and I modeled 
clay—’ ” Ray’s voice has risen an octave and then plunges into a 
full bass register for the end of the line: “ ‘And I played the villain 
in The Octoroon. ’ ” 

“Twirl your moustache,” Meisner says. 

Ray twirls an enormous imaginary moustache and the class 
laughs. 

“What does your family think of you?” 

“They think I’m a genius.” 

“Act out that you’re a genius,” Meisner says, and he points to 
his brain with the index finger of each of his hands. The class 
laughs again. 

“Oh,” Ray says timidly, “that kind of thing.” Without any 
gesture he continues, “They thought I was a genius.” 

“No,” Meisner says. “I mean—” and he makes a broad, slight¬ 
ly wacky gesture of pointing to his cranium with both index fin¬ 
gers. 

Ray repeats the gesture and says, “ ‘My parents thought I was 
going to be as great as Edison, or greater.’ ”, He laughs nervously 
and says, “I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck.” 



'172 . ;*j| 

That s okay. Jump to the end of the speech. Now you’ve 
thought it through. What was the truth about yourself?” 

“ ‘The truth was this—’ ” 

“Jump up!” Meisner exclaims, and Ray does so before complet¬ 
ing the line: ‘“I didn’t have the brains.’ ” The class laughs. 

“You see, what I’m telling you is to find, like The Octoroon, 
elements you can act out almost in pantomime which tell us what 
that’s all about. For example, ‘I studied and I studied and I stud¬ 
ied!’ ” And with each repetition Meisner bangs his fist on his 
head. . . : " 

“I see,” Ray says. “ ‘ Thinking, thinking, thinking!"' he says, at¬ 
tempting to duplicate the gesture Meisner has given him. 

“Yes,” Meisner says, “but with a sense of the ridiculous. ‘I was 
thinking!’ ” His index finger grinds like a drill bit into his brain. 
“Do you follow?” 

I do, Ray says, but I would have been afraid to do that 

before seeing you. You know what I mean?” 

“I guess I lenow what you mean. You think you’d be indicat¬ 
ing.” 

“Exactly.” ' 

“I would tell you if you were. This particular Spoon River lends 
itself to dramatizing all the nonsense. ‘Do you know what the 
truth of the matter is?’ ” Meisner asks, pointing to his head and 
crossing his eyes. The class laughs. “You were afraid to do that.” 

“Yep, I was. What’s interesting is that it’s the kind of acting 
I used to do most easily,” Ray says, laughing, “before this class. 
Not with the emotion behind it, but that sort of broad cliche. I 
would hit those cliches real hard.” 

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with a cliche if it belongs. What’s 
that mean?” 

It means that if the style lends itself, and the emotion is real 
behind what you re doing, a clichd can enhance the piece instead 
of make it worse.” 

“Right,” Meisner says. “Say ‘a can of peas’ to me.” 

“‘A can of peas,”’Ray says. . 

Meisner reacts broadly, yet believably, as if in saying the p in 
“peas” Ray has spit in his eye. “Why can’t you do that?” 

“Oh, I can. Honest, I can,” Ray says. 



173 


“MAKING THE PART YOUR OWN" 


Meisner pulls the right side of his suit jacket open, peers into 
the inside pocket and whispers, “Did you hear what he said?” 
The class laughs and Bette applauds. “Farce comedy! Please don’t 
make all these pieces momentous. Did you ever hear Beethoven’s 
Fur Elise? I can’t sing. It goes ta, ra, ta, ra, ta, ta, ra, ta, ra, ta. It’s 
a simple, kind of naive piece of music, but it’s by Beethoven, so it 
better be deep! Wrong! Don’t try to work too significantly.” 

Ray nods. 

“Ask me how old my mother was when she died.” 

“How old was your mother when she died?” Ray asks. 

“She was eighty-five!” Meisner exclaims in such a way that the 
meaning is, Isn’t it wonderful she lived to such a ripe old age! 
“Ask me again.” 

“How old was your mother when she died?” 

Meisner seems about to burst into tears, and can hardly answer 
the question. “She was,” he says, “eighty . . . five.” The class 
laughs. “Now, that's a cliche: mother—dying—you’ve got to cry. 
Do you know,” Meisner asks with great solemnity, “I happened 
to hear that there are teachers of acting who can’t teach unless 
they feel deeply. Ask me what I had for breakfast this morning.” 
“Sandy, what did you have for breakfast this morning?” 

The class begins to titter because Meisner seems so full of 
emotion that he can hardly speak. Finally he forces himself to 
say, “Corn . . . flakes.” The class laughs. “You follow? It’s got to 
be deep, or otherwise how can I be a good teacher? But I’m here 
to say, ‘Be yourself! Accept whatever comes out spontaneously!’ 
If you’re treating it too casually or too deeply, I’ll be the first to 
tell you!” 

I! 

“Sandy,” Scott Roberts says, “in the early 1940s—after the 
Group Theatre folded—you directed three plays on Broadway. 
Were you dissatisfied with being an actor and did you think, 
‘Maybe I’ll direct as well as teach?’ ” 

“I think I went any way the wind blew me,” Meisner says. 
He takes a sip of his drink. They are sitting in the living room 



of Meisner’s apartment. The play Scott has directed for the Cir¬ 
cle Repertory Company is about to open, and he has come by to 
take Meisner to a preview. 

“I.wasn’t a very good director,” Meisner says. “The reason is 
that I don’t handle adults very well. I don’t have confidence. 
Something in my psyche makes me restricted and inhibited by 
adults, and so I was timid about my authority. This is in contrast 
to the Playhouse, where I did really good productions and 
worked with freedom. As I thought about it later, I realized that 
I had retained what I did as a child, when I directed pageants 
with my cousins. I could deal with young people, but I couldn’t 
deal authoritatively with established adults. I have always thought 
this was one'of the reasons that I didn’t become a good direc¬ 
tor, because otherwise I have all the elements for it. With the 
students at the Playhouse I was in the same relationship as I was 
with my kid cousins when I was thirteen.” 

“In the class,” Scott says, “is that the problem with Lila?” 

“Yes, but I treat her like a young child,” Meisner says. 

“Yes, you do.” 

“See? I don’t treat her like somebody with a reputation. I know 
what her problems are as an actor, and I go after them. But all 
those people have a certain relationship to me, which is that of 
teacher/student. Within that, where I am and have to be the 
authority, I function. I don’t know what it would be like now. 
Now I don’t care one way or another.” 

“About being a director?” Scott asks. 

“Yeah. Or acting, for that matter. It’s the theater that interests 
me, not acting. I don’t like actors very much, though I do like to 
act. It’s enjoyable—sometimes. But I don’t like what it brings to 
the surface in my personality: the self-centeredness, the childish 
vanity, the infantilism. That’s what an actor has to have.” 

Scott looks at his watch. 

“You’re right,” Meisner says and stands up stiffly. “Let’s go 
take a look at your play.” 





11 ! 


Some Thoughts on Actors and on Acting* 

student: Sandy, you wanted one of us to ask 

you about punctuation in acting. 

meisner: Punctuation is emotional, not grammatical. 

If you say, “To be [pause] or not to be [pause ] 

that [/ pause ] is the question,” there are three commas, 

three emotional commas, and an exclamation 

point in those lines, but they’re not on the paper. 


“A girl, is seduced when she is eight, so everybody thinks she is 
a whore and has nothing to do with her. Then a newcomer 
arrives in town; he marries her and then finds out about her past 
and abandons her. After that she just dies from not wanting to 
live anymore. That’s sad, don’t you agree? 

“Now there are many ways of expressing your sadness. You 
don’t have to cry. But you cannot be almost empty emotionally, 


"The observations presented in this chapter were made during the thirteen 
months the class was in session. They are grouped by topic and not, as in 
the rest of this book, by date. 


176 

because your history is too strong. Christ on the cross must have 
been in unimaginable agony, but He didn’t cry. He held back. 
But in order to hold back, you have to have something to bold. ” 

“Fanny Brice, an incredible comic, told me that whenever she 
went on the stage she was like this—” Meisner’s hands tremble 
violently. “And this was at the end of her career when her name 
was like that—” He holds his hands one above the other, about 
two feet apart. “And the title was like this—” His hands are six 
inches apart. “So you’re going to be nervous! Be nervous! Did you 
ever hear that line—every actor knows it—‘I thought I’d die until 
I got my first laugh!’ You follow? The first laugh means ‘We love 
you.’ ” 

“That was very good.” 

“I lost the words.” 

“That’s nothing. Let me tell you something, all of you. Sarah, 
you were really acting. The moments were coming spontane¬ 
ously, and they had a meaning for you. God knows they’ve tried, 
but psychoanalysts really don’t know where talent comes from. 
But one of the possibilities is that what gives talent life, what 
makes it occur, comes in part out of people’s lack of confidence, 
out of their feeling that they’re not loved. Now, what made me 
think of that? Well, any of the negative experiences that life has 
to ofiFer have impacts of varying degrees. One of them is the 
feeling you’re going to be told that you’re wrong, that you’re bad 
and unlovable when you’re this high—” Meisner’s hand indicates 
the height of a small child. “But this feeling that you’re being 
mistreated, that you’re no good, which is a holdover from way 
back when you were almost an infant, can be a potent force in 
your acting. But the confidence that permits you to say ‘I am 
somebody’ takes a long time to become secure in you. The prob¬ 
lem arises when'that feeling of worthlessness is juxtaposed with 
something that is part and parcel of this business—namely, that 
you can’t learn to act unless you’re criticized. If you tie that 



SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 


177 


criticism to your childhood insecurities, you have a terrible time. 
Instead, you must, take criticism objectively, pertaining only to 
the work being done. Imagine if you said to a plumber, ‘I don t 
think you plunged that toilet well,’ and he burst into tears! It s 
only in the creative arts that self-confidence is such a problem. 
Now, if Sarah did that speech many times, and if each time 
people said, ‘You were lovely,’—her self-confidence would 
bloom! A good notice is like a kiss on your cheek.” 


“There’s one thing that’s clearly absent from this reading, Bette. 
You had it at the beginning and then you gave it up. What was 
it, do you know?” 

“Contact?” 

“A point of view. Look, I’ll show you something. Beth, tell me 
something about the life of your character. 

“My life?” Beth, Bette’s partner, says quietly. “It doesn’t seem 
too bright. My life seems kind of hopeless.” 

“Uh-huh!” Meisner says with a kind of ravenous enjoyment. 

“It looks bleak,” Beth continues. 

“Ah,” Meisner says with malicious pleasure. 

“You think that’s funny?” Beth asks in annoyance. 

“No,” Meisner says, smiling gleefully. 

“You act like you seem to enjoy it!” 

“I don’t mean to,” Meisner says in a conciliatory voice and 
then continues. “You see, Bette, there was a consistent point of 
view in my reaction to Beth. It’s like this. He pauses. My 
grandmother died a week ago,’ ‘Oh,’ ’ he says, smiling in delight, 
“ ‘you’ve got to be kidding!’ ‘Yeah, she was cremated.’ ‘Ahooh!’ ” 
Meisner says with exaggerated false sympathy, and the class 
laughs. “It doesn’t have to be logical. ‘My grandmother was cre¬ 
mated two weeks ago.’ ” He claps his hands together in exuberant 
joy and says, “ ‘What a pity!’ ” 

Again the class laughs. 

“Do you understand, Bette? It’s the opposite of what it should 
be. It’s opposite. You follow?” 

“Sort of. I think so,” she says hesitantly. 



178 


“Ray, do you understand what I said to her?” 

Ray nods but doesn’t speak. 

“Look, tell me something. Tell me something tragic.” 

“My sister has leukemia,” Ray says. 

“That’s fatal!” Meisner says, positively savoring the tragedy. 

The class laughs. 

“ That's the way you should do this part. What I did with Ray 
is what I think you should do.” 

“Okay.” 

“What’s your response when I tell you that my sister has leuke¬ 
mia? What do you do?” ' 

“I laugh,” Bette says. 

“Let me hear that.” 

With a contented smile Bette chuckles quietly and says 
through lightly clenched teeth, “That’s fatal,” and the class 
laughs again. “Okay, I’ve got it,” she continues. “Oh, God, I’ve 
got it!” 


“The first thing you have to do when you read a text is to find 
yourself —really find yourself. First you find yourself, then you 
find a way of doing the part which strikes you as being in charac¬ 
ter. Then, based on that reality, you have the nucleus of the role. 
Otherwise every shmuck from Erasmus Hall High School is an 
actor because everyone there knows how to read. Let’s say the 
script has the line ‘Oh, I forgot.’ Along comes the star of the 
Erasmus Hall High School Dramatic Club, and what you get is, 
‘Oh, I forgot.’ It is a straightforward but uninteresting reading 
of the words. Bur then you get the dope who never went to 
school, and he says, ‘Oh!’ ” Meisner’s fists go to his temples in a 
moment of painful recollection. A long pause follows during 
which he realizes that it’s too late now and he must make the best 
of it. Finally, almost with a shrug of his shoulders, he says casu¬ 
ally, “ ‘I forgot.’ Which one is the actor?” 

“The dope,” Bette says. 

“Anybody can read. But acting is living under imaginary cir¬ 
cumstances. A script—I may have said this before—a script is like 
a libretto. You know what a libretto is, don’t you?” 



179 


SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 

“It’s the text to which the composer adds music in an opera,” 
Ray says. 

“Right. The composer reads on the paper, ‘How cold your 
hand is!’ and the musician in him translates that into a glorious 
melody. An actor is like a composer. What you read in the book 
is only the merest indication of what you have to do when you 
really act the part.” 


“What a profession! I’ve been teaching acting for forty-seven 
years. I started when I was seven, and now I’m fifty-four.” The 
class laughs. “What’s so funny?” 

■ “When did you start teaching?” Joseph asks. “In 1935?” 

“Yeah, about then.” 

“You were still working with the Group Theatre, right? 

“Until 1940, the year it ended.” 

“Where did you start teaching—here, the Neighborhood Play¬ 
house?” „ 

“Professionally, here. I did my apprenticeship at various places. 

“How did you start teaching here?” 

“Through my friend Clifford Odets.” 

“Really?” 

“He had a girlfriend who was a student here, and they were 
looking for somebody to come in and direct their final play. She 
had suggested him, but Awake and Sing! had just opened and he 
was famous—the cover-of-Time kind of famous. So he said to me 
—he was my best friend—‘You go.’ ” 

“Was Martha Graham teaching here then?” 

“Yes. She taught the movement classes for years. 

“Do you still play the piano?” 

“I quit. On Bequia I play the church organ.” 

“This is very indiscreet of me, so promise that you’ll only tell it 
to thirty people. A woman by the name of Mrs. Cartier they 
have a little jewelry shop on Fifth Avenue is after me this is 
true—to meet with a group of her friends. They want to know 
more about acting, so that when they pay forty dollars a ticket 



180 


for a show, they’ll know why they’re being cheated. This kept me 
up almost the whole night. They want a course.” 

“Are you serious?” Joseph asks. 

“There’s a play in there somewhere,” Bette says. 

“Such an old-fashioned play. She called last night.” 

“Maybe they’ll learn something,” Joseph says. 

“Who gives a shit?” 

“They probably don’t know what good acting is,” Joseph says. 

“Most people don’t, Can you imagine Mrs. Cartier and Mrs. 
Guggenheim doing the word repetition?” 

“ ‘I love your tiara.’ ‘You love my tiara?’ ” Ralph says and the 
class laughs. 

“Once in California, I gave a speech at a big theater downtown, 
and I talked about the things that I have always believed in. But 
at the end somebody said, ‘What can we do? This is Hollywood.’ 
And I answered, ‘I have never let myself forget what the theater 
can be, and I’ll stick to my guns.’ What else can I do? I was in 
the Group Theatre. That was something. I couldn’t speak to Mrs. 
Cartier the way I talk to you., She’s a nice woman. She’s got a 
thirty-seven-carat diamond ring, but she’s a nice woman. Believe 
me, I’ve got nothing against that diamond.” 

“Sandy,” Ray says, “are there ever any circumstances in'a play 
when you can legitimately decide that your character is trying to 
hide his real feelings?” 

“You wouldn’t hide them. You wouldn’t try. You’d have them, 
but you wouldn’t let them out. You follow?” 

“No. Don’t Chekhov’s people always hide what they’re feel¬ 
ing? I mean, they feel it, but they try to hide it.” 

“Ah, Chekhov! That’s a big question. The Three Sisters* opens 
with Masha, the middle sister, bored to death. Her speech begin¬ 
ning, ‘Father died a year ago today,’ is full of melancholy, but she 
is not sitting shivah. She talks about the past with a certain mood. 

The events described in the following are out of sequence; however, their 
emotional importance is accurately conveyed. 



SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 


181 


Then Masha’s husband, a teacher who’s a big bore, comes in. He 
comes to get her but she hates him and sends him away, saying 
she’ll come home in a minute. Then Vershinin comes in and 
fascinates the whole family with his personality. After a long 
time, Masha—who hasn’t said a word, not one word—suddenly 
announces, ‘I think I’ll stay to lunch!’ Now, why does she do 
that?” 

“You tell me.” 

“She’s fallen madly in love with Vershinin. But she doesn’t say 
a word to him and he hardly knows she’s in the room.” 

“So does the actress playing Masha try to hide from the others 
the fact that she’s falling in love with him?” 

“His being there changes her. He says something which in¬ 
spires her, or she thinks he’s sexy. Who knows? The point is, it’s 
typical Chekhov, and the emotion is entirely internal. She doesn’t 
do anything, does she?” 

“Not until she says, ‘I think I’ll stay to lunch.’ ” 

“Until then. But she started out the act by complaining, ‘I’ve 
got to go home. God help me!’ That radical change in her is 
entirely internal. In the first line of The Seagull, another teacher, 
Medvedenko, says to another Masha, ‘Why do you always wear 
black?’ And-she says, ‘I’m in mourning for my life.’ Can you 
imagine how many choices the actress has to motivate that line? 
Maybe she decides that Masha is in love with her father, maybe 
she has never been in love. The actress has to choose something, 
and then hide it behind a smile as if it were a joke.” 

“So there are certain cases where you feel something inside and 
yet hide it.” 

“No, you’ve got to give some indication that you think of it as 
a joke in order to mask the truth, which is that you wear black 
because you are literally in mourning for your life. Do you un¬ 
derstand the difference? Chekhov writes from such a deep source! 
At the end of The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranyevskaia says to the 
man who’s chopping down the cherry trees, ‘So long!’ It’s rather 
cheery, but it happens to be the end of an era! Chekhov is terri¬ 
ble!” 

“Why?” Ray asks. 

“Because he’s so inscrutable.” 



182 

“What writers aren’t terrible?” 

“Chekhov,” Meisner says. “But look how difficult he is. A line 
says, ‘Ivan, bring me a pound of tomatoes from the market,’ and 
the stage direction reads, ‘She bursts into tears.’ ” The class 
laughs. es, he’s wonderful, but there’s no question but that he’s 
very difficult!” 


“I have one more question, but it has nothing to do with class,” 
John says. “I want to know about when you were in the Group 
Theatre and Stella Adler came back from Paris and said, ‘Listen, 
what’s going on here with Lee Strasberg isn’t what Stanislavsky 
really meant at all,’ ” John says. “Did you and the other actors 
suspect that your work process wasn’t right even before Stella 
talked to Stanislavsky?” 

“It wasn’t prevalent. They may have had suspicions, but that’s 
all. Among other things, she brought back ‘given circumstances’ 
—how you get to the essence of‘given circumstances.’ You know, 
Stella and Strasberg were enemies even before we started the 
Group. She said, ‘He’s a fake’ before we ever began.” 

“ Then how do you explain the quality of acting of some of his 
students?” Ray asks. “You say you can show somebody the best 
way to bring out the best acting that he or she can do. But 
underneath it all is talent , and you don’t know what that is. You 
know that it has something to do with imagination, but you don’t 
know what—nobody does. So it seems to me that if what Stras¬ 
berg did was, in effect, to introvert actors who were already 
introverted, to make them have private experiences on stage that 
aren t expressed, then the people that came out of his classes and 
his technique and acted beautifully must have done so in spite of 
the training.” 

“That’s right. Like who?” 

“Pacino.” 

“A1 Pacino has been that way for twenty-five years!” 

I think so too—as an actor, as a talent and as an individual. 
But isn’t that always true?” Ray asks. 

“What do you mean?” 



183 


SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 

-■ “What I mean is that if you can’t act, you can’t act, right?” 
“Right.” 

“But if you can act very well, if you’re one.of those people who 
let beautiful acting come out of them because that’s the way 
they’re made, then you can do it under any circumstances.” 

“Yes, and you know what? Strasberg would see that talent and 
invite someone to join the Studio, all those famous, talented peo¬ 
ple, and then say later, ‘He was my student!’ ” 

“Did he do that with Duvall?” Joseph asks. 

“Duvall studied with me.” 

<i “I know he studied with you first, but he also went to the 
Studio afterwards.” 

“To work on himself, not to learn to act! It’s quite different.” 

“What do you mean, ‘to work on himself?” 

“It was a place where there were other actors. That was the 
merit of the Actors Studio.” 

“To get back to what I asked,” John says, “when Stella came 
back from Paris, did the two of you have a series of meetings— 
just the two of you—where she said, ‘Sandy, this is really what 
it’s about’?” 

“Clurman. Harold Clurman was there too.” 

“And the three of you started working out this system we’re 
learning now?” 

“More or less, yes, though Stella doesn’t teach the way I do.” 

“Not at all!” Rose Marie says. 

“Did you develop the repetition exercise then?” Ralph asks. 

“No, much later. I invented it with people in my classes.” 

“How did you know that was the way to go?” Joseph asks. 

“Instinct.” 

“You knew that if the partners repeated lines back and forth, 
the very repetition would give rise to something new—that it 
would change organically?” 

“Yes, I more or less knew that. I found out by working here 
at school and in my private classes that it produced the kind of 
life that had nothing to do with introverting you. Also the prob¬ 
lem of preparation; I took great exception to Strasberg on prepa¬ 
ration.” • 



“You developed the repetition after the Group Theatre,” John 
says. 

“Yes, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s or early 1960s that it took 
the form it has now.” - <• T r<„ >: . 

“Was there anything similar that you used to do in the 
Group?” •• • 

“No.” 

“It was more in line with the method that Strasberg taught?” 
Rose Marie asks. ’-v v. 

“More or less, yes.” ! 

Ralph holds up his hand. “Did Harold Clurman have any 
technique or theories about acting?” 

“He had a general, sensitive knowledge of acting.” 

“Was he primarily a director?” 

“Yes, but a historian, too. His books are very good.” 

“Yes, they are,” Rose Marie says. “Clurman was a director, but 
you were an actor, and you understood what it meant to lead 
that life. And from what I hear, you were a very good actor. 
Apparently Strasberg wasn’t very successful as an actor. Is that 
true?” 

“He was a terrible actor.” ' 

“So maybe that says something.” 

“He was a librarian; that’s what he was. I don’t want to go 
into it, but in the back of the Neighborhood Playhouse bro¬ 
chure which we send to prospective students there’s a list of the 
graduates. If you want to amuse yourself in a sickening kind of 
way, go through that list and see how many people he invited 
to the Studio and then said, ‘He was my student.’ It’s amazing.” 

“How many of the men in this class have wanted to be teach¬ 
ers?” 

Ray holds up his hand. 

“You have?” 

“When I went to college I thought I’d be a teacher.” 

“An acting teacher?” 

“I’ve thought of being an acting teacher, but—” 




SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 1 8 5 

“Just before you all came in, I saw a Playhouse class.* It really 
stayed me how awful it was. Terrible.” 

“The students themselves were bad,” Joseph asks, “or the work 
was bad?” 

“The work was very bad.” 

“So how many new teachers are you looking for?” Bette 
asks. 

“Two or three, but where are they?” 

“And you’re only hiring men?” Rose Marie says. 

“Not necessarily.” 

“But aren’t all the Playhouse teachers, those who teach the 
younger students under your direction, former students of 
yours?” Joseph asks. 

“They were all trained by me.” 

“I’m not so sure it’s the teachers’ fault anymore,” Rose Marie 
says. “I think it has to do with the students today. I think that 
when a lot of young people read that Robert Duvall and Diane 
Keaton studied here and that you were their teacher, they decide 
they want to be like them, but they don’t understand the work 
that goes into it.” 

“They worked like dogs, those people.” 

“I believe it. I don’t believe they were just natural talents. I 
think they worked very, very hard.” 

“With natural talent.” 

“With natural talent,” Rose Marie agrees. 

“How do you teach somebody,” John asks, “to be a good acting 
teacher? It seems to require—” 

“You don’t!” 

*The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, 340 East 54th Street, 
New York, offers a two-year training program for the theater to a maximum 
of 110 students, most of them in their early twenties. It has a faculty of 
fourteen, of whom four teach acting under Sanford Meisner’s supervision. 
Other courses include speech and vocal production, singing, stage move¬ 
ment, dance, fencing, makeup and a course in acting period plays. In addi¬ 
tion to his work with these students, Sanford Meisner has traditionally 
taught a class, like the one described in this book, for older professionals. 



“That’s what I mean,” John says. “I agree, because it seems to 
be the most sensitive kind of teaching there could ever be.” 

I think,” Ray says, “that half the people teaching don’t know 
what good acting is. What drives me forward in the class is my 
belief that you know what you’re looking at, and that it means 
a great deal to me if you say I’m going in the right or the wrong 
direction. That’s where the drive comes from; I believe you know 
what you’re talking about. I believe it because of two things: your 
reputation, and the way you discuss what you see in class. You 
know what you’re talking about.” 

“I’ll tell you something,” says Meisner, “and I’m really speak- 
mg objectively-there are practically no acting teachers who » 

1 here are many supposed techniques around, but nobody 
with a really clear vision of what to do,” Ralph says. “At least 
that’s my experience. I’m a person who needs some kind of clar¬ 
ity in being taught—you know, step-by-step. I’ve worked with a 
lot of people who teach scenes, who know what to do in any 
number of given scenes, but who have no clarity, no technique 
no way to help the student go step-by-step. They’re confusing!”’ 

1 here are no teachers of acting technique around. They’re 
lakers. I say this impersonally. I’ve seen their work. I don’t know 
how we got on this subject, but I once saw a picture of a well- 
known French painter who was painting with his back to the 
photographer. On each hand he had tied brushes because he was 
so old and paralyzed with God knows what. But he couldn’t stop 
painting. I’m the same way. I can’t stop teaching. Good or bad 

[ Ca J. 1 St0 P’ old enou S h ^ stop. I can’t see, I can’t talk, I can ! 
hardly walk. 

‘‘Why did you begin teaching?” Anna asks. 

Why does any artist begin doing what he’s made for? Even he 
doesn t know. He’s just following a need within himself” 

‘‘And the Playhouse?” Ray asks. “What should happen to it>” 
After I leave?” 

“Yes.” 

“Objectively? Impersonally? I hope they close it down. It will 
have done its work.” 


I 


. -a 

Y 

m 



SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND.ON ACTING 1 8 7 

“Sandy,” says Scott Roberts, “I should change your battery.” 

“Well, change it.” 

Scott sits beside the gray desk, removes a new nine-volt battery 
from its package and opens the case of a small transmitter resting 
on the desk top, which sends Meisner’s voice to the amplifier and 
the loudspeaker across the room. 

“I wish I could kill myself.” 

“Really?” Anna asks. “Are you serious?” 

“I don’t have the nerve; that's why I can say it.” 

“Why do you wish you had the nerve?” 

“When he fixes this so I’m sure you can hear my answer, I’ll 
tell you.” 

Scott snaps the new battery into the transmitter, closes it and 
returns to his seat beneath the controls of the amplifier across the 
room. 

“Because life stinks.” 

“You’re right,” Anna says, “it does.” 

“I’ve had enough of it.” 

“That’s a given, though,” Ray says. “What does that have to do 
with anything? You can’t help that.” 

“It’s a full moon, Sandy,” Beth says. “You’ll feel better next 
Week.” - ' 

“A full moon always affects you emotionally,” Bette says. 

“Next week you’ll want to live and dance,” Beth says. 

“In a play that I did—Scott saw it, a Sam Behrman play—what 
was the name of it?” 

“The Cold Wind and the Warm, ” Scott says. 

“The Cold Wind and the Warm. I played the part of a fat, rich, 
insensitive businessman—a horrible character. In one scene I say 
to a young girl—Suzanne Pleshette—‘Will you marry me?’ Well, 
she almost falls off her chair in amusement. To a sensitive person 
her amusement would mean, ‘Are you kidding? Me marry you?’ 
But to a big lump like the character I was playing it meant—” 
He smiles in delight and clasps his hands before him as if sa¬ 
voring a victory. The class laughs. “I took the meaning of her 
laugh from my character, which means that I know something 



188 

about the nature of an insensitive lunkhead. It’s all in the in¬ 
stinct.” 

“But in the moment, too, right?” Ray asks. 

“It comes out of the moment. Character reveals itself by how 
you do what you do. I say, ‘Will you marry me?’ and she laughs 
derisively. I’m insensitive. I think she’s accepting me.” 

“There are many people who would play that as if they real¬ 
ized what she meant,” Rose Marie says, “but you played it as if 
you didn’t even see it.” 

“No, l saw it, but I misinterpreted it because I was insensitive.” 

“It was a character choice,” Rose Marie says. 

“But you made that choice instinctively, not intellectually,” 
Ray says. 

“When I was working on the part I could decide how to do it.” 

“So,” Ray says, “your character’s insensitive, and when the girl 
laughs, you decide that that she’s accepting you, because you 
missed her meaning. But isn’t there a danger that if you make too ; 
many of those choices by going through the script and picking 
them out of here”—he points to his head—“the performance is 
bound to be artificial?” 

“Yes.” 

“So even though there’s a balance between making those kinds 
of choices emotionally and making them as a result of reading the 
script with your head, even the ones you decide on intellectually f 
are not something that you said to yourself, ‘Oh, this would be 
interesting to do.’ If so, in the long run it would be better for j 
some other actor to do the part.” 

“Say that again.” 

“You didn’t make a choice based on ideas that would have % 
worked better if somebody else had the part,” Ray says. 

“Right.” 

“That is what I want to learn,” Bette says. “I want to find out Jj 
where my limitations are—which parts I should be going for or 
avoiding. I have a feeling for all of it, so how do I know if I can’t % 
do it?” - ' ll 

“Do you have a feeling for Peter Pan?” ■ ■ ,;0 

“Yeah.” ■••if 

. : li 



189 


IT 

. SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 

“Well, you’re not right for it.” 

“Okay,” Bette says, “that’s one down. That’s what I want to 
know.” 

“Life, life, life, life.” -. 

“In' time I’ll find out?” 

“The last play the Group Theatre put into rehearsal was The 
Three Sisters by Chekhov. Luckily, we never performed it. They 
gave me the part of Baron Toozenbach. I said, ‘I won’t play it. 
A minor German nobleman in prerevolutionary Russia?’ It 
didn’t mean a thing to me—not a thing. Do you understand?” 

“I used to think,” Rose Marie says, “that if I didn’t like a part 
and refused to do it, it was because I wasn’t any good as an 
actress. If I were really good, I’d be Meryl Streep, who can do 
anything.” 

“No, she can’t.” 

“You’re right,” Rose Marie says. 

“I always get cast as the bright, happy-go-lucky girl next door,” 
Bette says. “I never get the roles I’d really love to do.” 

“Like what?” 

“The killer parts.” 

“That’s our theater.” 

“Now, that's encouraging,” Bette says, turning to the class. 
“He didn’t say I couldn’t do those parts, but that they didn’t think 
I could do them, or that they didn’t want to see me do them. They 
don’t want people to act. They want people to be what they 
appear to be. If you look a certain way, that’s what they want or 
don’t want.- They don’t think of anything else.” 

“All casting is like that. We had a student here—a black boy, 

. very talented. He graduated, read for a part and got it. They said, 
‘Come back tomorrow to sign your contract.’ He went back—this 
is God’s honest truth—and the lady who was producing it said, 

: ‘Oh, by the way, how old are you?’ He said, ‘Twenty-three.’ And 
she said, ‘The character is twenty-one.’ ” 

“Ah!” gasps the entire class. 

“That’s happened to me,” Bette says. 

“It’s part of the business.” 

| “Hollywood is terrible,” Anna says. 



190 

“It’s just as bad here,” Meisner says. 

“There they want sixteen-year-olds for everything.” 

“Or seventy-five-year-olds.” 

“Yeah, they’re getting into that,” Anna says. 

“Have you noticed that on television all the heroines are blond 
and all the heroes have curly black hair?” 

“A blond man isn’t taken seriously,” Rose Marie says. 

“Tell that to Robert Redford,” Ray says. 

“She’s right,” Meisner says, “not for another three years.” 

The class laughs. 

“Blond women do okay, though,” Bette says. 

“For three years;” Meisner says. “Then they’re going to 
switch.” 

“In three years,” Bette says, stroking her braided black hair, 
“my ship will come in.” 

“Once I took my courage in both hands and told a little parable 
about the two barrels to a famous psychoanalyst, and instead of ; 
dropping on the floor with amusement, he said he saw some truth 
in it. The story goes like this: 

“All of us have two barrels inside us. The first barrel is the one 
that contains all of the juices which are exuded by our troubles. 
That’s the neurotic barrel. But right next to it stands the second 1 : . ; 
barrel, and by a process of seepage like osmosis, some of the 
troubles in the first barrel get into the second, and by a miracle 
that nobody fully understands, those juices have been trans¬ 
formed into the ability to paint, to compose, to write, to play 
music and the ability to act. So essentially our talent is made up j 
out of our transformed troubles.” 

Meisner pauses for a moment. . i 

“I’d always thought that two of the luckiest, happiest people 
I could imagine were Shakespeare and Beethoven, but the doctor 
to whom I told this parable said, ‘No, no. Shakespeare had plenty 
of trouble—that is, neurosis—and so did Beethoven,’ and he 
pointed out some of their more obvious troubles. This proved to t 
me that the osmosis between the barrels doesn’t work com- v 



191 


SOME THOUGHTS ON ACTORS AND ON ACTING 

pletely. There is always some juice in the trouble barrel, no 
matter how full the talent barrel is. The trouble cannot transpose 
itself into talent without leaving some residue behind, even in the 
most talented of human beings.” 


“The moment in the play in which Duse performed in London 
in 1895, when she sees her lover of thirty years ago, the man who 
is the father of her child, and tries to be quite pleasant, but then 
suddenly finds herself blushing, is pure genius. You can’t fake a 
blush; you can’t run into the dressing room for a pot of rouge. 
It also cannot be prepared for. It cannot be premeditated. George 
Bernard Shaw, in the famous review he wrote about her perfor¬ 
mance, said he was curious, in a professional way, whether it 
happened all the time. I think that it happened when it happened. 
That’s all. That blush can’t be prepared for, that’s my point; 
what’s more, if the script says, in so many words, ‘She begins to 
blush,’ cross it out. ” 

“Why?” Ray asks'. 

“You cross things like that out because they are anti-intuitive. 
Those little words in parentheses underneath the character’s 
name in the script, like ‘softly,’ ‘angrily,’ ‘entreatingly,’ or ‘with 
effort,’ are aids for readers of plays, not for actors of them. Cross 
them out immediately.” 

“Tell us why you cross them out,” Ray says. 

“Because they dictate a kind of life which can only be there 
spontaneously.” 

“That’s good to remember,” Bette says. 

“Did you ever read any of the late plays by Eugene O’Neill? 
They have so many stage directions that, if you’re cast in one, the 
first thing you have to do is buy a pencil and cross them all out, 
because nobody, not even the playwright, can determine how a 
life is going to live itself out sensitively, instinctively, on the 
stage. But I add this caveat: the life of the actor must not annihilate 
the deeper implications of the play which the playwright has 
written.” 



192 

II 

Ray Stanton enters Meisner’s office and says, “Scott told me you 
wanted to see me.” 

“Yes. Come in and sit down. Perhaps you’ve heard that Scott 
has successfully directed a play downtown.” 

“Yes,” Ray says-, “at Circle Rep. It got great reviews.” 

“So great,” Meisner says, “that he has decided not to assist me 
for much longer. He thought you might like to have the job. 
Yes?” 

“Good God,” Ray says, “I’m stunned, but I would. Thank 
you.”, 

“Scott reminded me that you once said in class that you aspired 
to become a teacher. Is that true?” 

“Yes.” 

“Good. We’ll see. Give Scott a call. He’ll tell you when he’s 
leaving and what the job is all about.” 




Final Scenes: “Instead 


of Merely the Truth” 



September 27 


Spring Awakening by 
Frank Wedekind* 
act 3, scene 5 

A bedroom. Doctor, Wendla and Mrs. Bergmann. 

•Torn Osborn, trans. (London: Calder and Boyars, 1969). First published 
Zurich in 1891. 



Exeunt Doctor with Mrs. Bergmann 


wendla: The leaves are turning yellow on the plane trees. 

Sometimes I feel so happy—full of joy and sunlight. 
There’s a warm glow round my heart. I want to 
walk in the sun in the evening, through the fields 
and under the trees, and sit on the river bank and 
dream . . . And then my pain comes back and I think 
I’m going to die tomorrow. I go hot and cold and it’s 
all dark in front of my eyes, and a monster comes 
floating into the room . . . Whenever I wake I see 
mother crying. That hurts, Mother, why do you cry? 
mrs. b: (Returning) He thinks the sickness will soon pass and 

then it’s perfectly all right for you to get up.' I think 
it would be better for you to get up soon too. 
wendla: What else did he say out there, Mamma? 
mrs. B: He said nothing—he told me about the young Bar¬ 
oness who also used to faint. That is a common 
symptom of anaemia. 
wendla: Did he say I had. anaemia? 

mrs. b: He wants you to drink milk and eat plenty of meat 
and green vegetables as soon as your appetite re¬ 
turns. 

wendla: Oh Mamma, I don’t believe I’ve got anaemia. 
mrs. b: You have got anaemia, Wendla. You must rest now. 
You have got anaemia. 

wendla: No Mamma—I know that’s not true. I can feel it’s 
not true. I haven’t got anaemia. 1 think I’ve got 
dropsy. 

mrs. b: You’ve got anaemia—that’s what he told me, that 
you’ve got anaemia. Try to rest now, Wendla, it’ll 
get better. 

wendla: It won’t get better. I’ve got dropsy. I think I’m going 
to die, Mamma. I’m going to die. 
mrs b: You won’t die, my daughter—you won’t die . . . Oh 

merciful God . . . You won’t die. 
wendla: But you’re crying, Mamma, then why are you cry¬ 
ing? 




m 

i 



195 


ffpINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH” 

mrs b: You won’t die — Oh Wendla. It’s not dropsy. You’ve 

got a baby... You’ve got a baby... How could you ... 
’ wendla: How could I what? 
mrs b: Don’t go on denying it—I know. I just couldn’t say 

it before. Wendla, my Wendla ... 
wendla: But it’s not possible, Mamma. I’m not married . . . 
mrs b: Oh God, give me strength. That’s just it, you’re not 

married. That’s the terrible thing. Oh Wendla, how 
could you do it? 

wendla: But what did I do? We lay together in the hay . . . 

I’ve never loved anyone but you, Mamma, only 
you ... 

mrs b: My dearest girl ... 

wendla: Oh Mamma, why didn’t you tell me it all . . . 
mrs b: It won’t help now, it won’t help now, weeping and 

reproaches. How could I tell you—a fourteen-year- 
old girl . . . My mother told me no more than I did 
you—it would be like the sun not rising one day 
. . . We must put our trust in God now, Wendla, in 
His mercy. Nothing has happened yet. If we can be 
courageous now, God will stay with us. Be brave, 
Wendla, be brave . . . What’s the matter? 
wendla: Someone knocked at the door. 
mrs b: I didn’t hear anything. 

wendla: Oh yes, I heard it very clearly. Who’s there? 
mrs b; No one. Mrs. Schmidt from Garden Street. Come 
up, Mrs. Schmidt. I was expecting you. 


“If one is foolhardy enough to put a fragile canoe into a tempestu¬ 
ous river, what dictates the movement of the canoe?” 

“The current of the river,” Sarah says. 

“The river. You know all this. The river is equivalent to the 
emotions, right? Now, you have to know something about this 
play. It was written as a passionate rebellion against the igno¬ 
rance of children. Fourteen—she’s a child, Sarah, you follow? To 
be pregnant at fourteen is the equivalent of your mother finding 
out that you’re going to jail for life for heroin or murder. It’s a 
scene about fatality. Do you understand?” 



196 

“Yes,” Sarah says. 

“Now, the problem of the scene is in the preparation, the 
tempestuousness of the river, and in your understanding of the 
fact that this is a play which is a violent protest against keeping 
young people ignorant. It’s as if you and your mother have just 
found out that your young husband of two days was killed in an 
accident. It’s a scene of bereavement against the misfortune of 
life.” 

“You mean this terrible thing has happened to me and there’s 
nothing I can do about it?” 

“There’s nothing you can do if the judge says, ‘You’re in for 
life!’ Nothing you can do. The play takes place as if this room 
were your prison cell! Do I make myself clear?” 

“Yes,” Sarah says, “very clear.” 

“If I were you, I’d do an exercise which will release for you the 
emotional content of the scene. What I said before about a canoe 
in a typhoon is an example which explains the rhythm and the 
content of this scene. Any questions?” 

“Are you talking about the emotional life of both these peo¬ 
ple?” Lila asks. ,■ ' 

“You’re both in the same canoe.” 

“Okay, they’re both in this typhoon together. But is it impor¬ 
tant that the mother feels more responsibility and guilt for the 
daughter’s ignorance?” 

“You don’t have to worry about that because it is revealed 
during the course of the play. You just have to get the canoe into 
that river.” 

“Get the canoe into the water?” Sarah asks. 

“That’s the preparation. You know, it’s such a short scene that 
you might— 

“We’ll do it on Monday,” Lila says. 

“Learn the lines. You’ll start it on Monday, right?” 

“Right,” Lila says. “I mean, we can do it without the book on 
Monday.” 

“If you’re in the canoe!” 



197 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 

October 4 

“Stay where you are. Put your book away. Lila, sit down. Sarah, 
take that bedcover off you. Lila, you’ve just found out—I’m talk¬ 
ing about imagination—that your daughter is going to prison. 
Anything! I don’t care! See? I don’t care what you think of. Cry! 
And don’t stop crying until I tell you to. That’s right. Begin to 
cry! Now, Sarah, you’re an actress. If a doctor told you that you 
had lung cancer, would it upset you?” Sarah nods and Lila begins 
to cry. “That’s right. Sarah, if somebody told you that your 
mother was about to die, would it upset you?” 

- “Yes.” • '■ 

“Okay, so start to cry.” 

After a pause Lila says, “The doctor said that you’re—” 

“No text! No text! Only emotion! If you want to use words, 
you can use them based on what I said about cancer or prison.” 
They both are crying quietly. There is a pause. “If you remember 
any of the lines—if you can say them to each other—you can have 
a conversation. If you remember. If you don’t, that’s okay too.” 

The crying increases. Lila is weeping openly; the tears stream 
from her large blue eyes, and the mascara on her lashes begins 
to run. The women begin the scene and the text floats on the 
surface of Lila’s deeply felt emotion. Sarah, however, seems quiet 
but unmoved. 

“Cry, Sarah!” 

“Ah!” she shouts and hits the bed with her fists in frustration. 
In a moment she begins to sob. It is heartbreaking. “I don’t have 
anaemia! I know it!” she cries. 

After a moment, when her grief permits, Lila says in little 
panting breaths, “You have . . . anaemia . . . and it . . . will get 
better. ...” 

Sarah shouts, as if in great pain, “It won’t get better! It won’t 
get better!” Then, calming herself, she says, “Oh, Mother, I’ve 
got to die.” 

“You don’t have to die,” Lila sobs. “You don’t have to die. 
Merciful heavens! You don’t have to die!” 

“Then,” Sarah says accusingly, “why do you cry so much?” 
In a tiny voice strangled with tears, Lila says, “You don’t have 



t yo 


to die. . . . You only have dropsy. You have . . . you have a baby! 
What have you done to me?” 

“I haven’t done anything to you!” 

“Oh, you lied to me. I know everything. I just couldn’t say 
anything before now. Oh, Wendla!” She is overcome by more 
tears. 

Sarah is stunned and says in a whisper, “It’s not possible. I’m 
not married.” 

“God, that’s just it. You’re not married. Oh, what have you 
done?” 

“Mother, I’ve never loved anyone except you. You, Mother!” 

The reading sounds forced and Meisner interrupts her. 
“That’s out of the book!” Lila continues to sob. “I feel good about 
this because that's the scene—the scene without those screwy 
words. The scene is about two people going through a terrible 
experience, and I don’t know any floozy—I’m not talking about 
either of you—who can’t learn those lines if she’s asked to. But 
I told you last time—this isn’t criticism—about the canoe! That's 
the canoe. It comes first, and when you are full and you can 
remember an occasional line, throw it out! It can’t hurt!” The 
class laughs. “This is the scene. No book. No text. I don’t have to 
say any more. Can you grasp that?” 

“I think so,” Lila says wiping her eyes on a silk handkerchief. 
“I thought of a very strong preparation for—” 

“Where was it?” 

“Well, I didn’t feel that she had reached the point—” 

“It says so in the book.” 

“I mean at the beginning. I was working my way into it.” 

“There are too many line actors in this world! That’s for stock! 
In New Hampshire! In the summer! We’re talking about acting! 
What’s the character? A woman terrified of scandal because of 
what her daughter has done to herself. A daughter who will be 
broken by the scandal of what she’s done! Do you follow?” 

“Yes.” 

“Did you understand what I meant when I said, ‘This is the 
scene’?” 

“The preparation has to be that full?” Sarah asks. 

“Yes! When you rehearse, you should prepare, play it freely 



FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


199 


with no book, then quit. Talk about the President, have a cup of 
tea, then rehearse again.” 

“I’m still confused,” Lila says. “I mean, I understand what 
you’re talking about, and you obviously want it from the very 
beginning. I was prepared to move emotionally. I was trying to 
hide from her at the onset of the scene—” 

“You weren’t hiding. You can’t kid me when it comes to emo¬ 
tion.” 

“Well, that’s what I was attempting to do.” 

“Don’t talk about it. I told you that this is the scene. In time, 
tack on the text. Talk to each other. What’s so mysterious about 
that? You don’t understand?” 

“Do you want us to continue with it?” asks Lila. 

“Damn right. That’s what it’s all about.” 

“I thought I was moving in that direction—” 

“You don’t move in that direction. You’re right there." 

“But what do you do,” Lila asks, “when that emotional prepa¬ 
ration is for something that is not at the very beginning of the 

scene?” . . 

“There’s no such thing. A preparation is only for the beginning 

of the scene, and each moment feeds it and changes it. You re not 
going to get it from the text!” 

“Then I misunderstood,” Lila says. This has been a very 
painful rehearsal time for us.” 

“I say it should be very simple. Prepare for the hysteria, gradu¬ 
ally learn the lines, then put the two together. If you prepare and 
then work moment by moment off her and with her, you 11 al¬ 
ways be riding on a very stormy river. Do you understand what 
I’m talking about? What do you know before you begin?” 

“I know that my daughter is pregnant.” 

“That’s all you need. That means your daughter’s dead! Cry! 
What could be simpler? Who is Mrs. Schmidt, the lady from 
Garden Street?” 

“I assumed, for the sake of the scene,” Lila says, “that she’s an 
old friend—” 

“No! She’s the abortionist!” 

“Oh, my God,” Lila says. 

“Cry, both of you, then talk. That’s my method of acting: cry, 



200 

then talk. Don’t talk and then expect to cry, because you won’t! 
When you began you didn’t have anything. This time you had it! 
Next time I bet you will too!” 

October 11 

Lila and Sarah repeat, for the last time, their scene from We¬ 
dekind’s Spring Awakening. It is full of tears and emotionally 
moving, but the amount of their emotion and inexperience in 
handling it makes it difficult for the audience to understand every 
word. 

“Okay, blow your noses. Emotionally—” The two women are 
still crying, so Meisner stops. “Lila, laugh! Sing ‘The Star-Span¬ 
gled Banner’!” 

“ ‘Oh, say can you see?’ ” Lila sings in a blowzy, teary voice and 
then begins to giggle. 

“That’s right! Sarah, tickle yourself!” 

Sarah begins to laugh and the class joins in. 

“Emotionally, that is the scene. Do you see the difference be- 
tween last time and this time?” y 

“Yes,” Lila says. 

“You do? My chief concern is for you—for anybody—to act out 
the life of the scene as intended by the playwright. Technically 
it was faulty in its lack of clarity, but I don’t care about that. The 
problem is to be understandable without losing the emotional life 
of the scene, which you now have. Getting used to having the 
emotion will help greatly; the clarity will come by itself. The 
canoe won’t capsize. You follow?” 

“I think so,” Sarah says. “What you’re saying is that the more 
we rehearse it—” 

“The clearer you will be without losing the life of the scene.' 
If you do it like this.” 

“Are you saying that the emotion shouldn’t be at this peak for 
the whole scene?” Lila asks. 

“Right, not all the time.” 

“But you wanted for us to go for it—” 

“You start from there.” 



FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


201 


“Right.” 

, “This is the scene as written by the playwright. I’m pointing 
out that emotionally it was where it should be, but that techni¬ 
cally it was weak. But this happens all the time.” 

“Do you mean in plays or in life?” Lila asks. 

“In plays, not in life. You’re not forced to live life, you know.” 


October 18 


A Palm Tree in a Rose Garden* by 
Meade Roberts 
from act 3, scene 1 


. . . Charlie and Barbara enter L. B&th-ar e -tighi, Barbara th e mere-f Oy 
a n d she i mmediately heads for me of th e beach ehairs and flops into - ifr 


BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 


CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 


{ S igh ing - with relief. ) Oh. { She kicks another chair lightly 
with her-feat. ) Sit down. 

I can’t stay long. I’ve an early appointment with 
Victor. 

Victor, Victor, Victor! Where were we tonight? 
{Sttsv) At Victor’s. 

I know we were at Victor’s. Where’s Victor’s? 

On North Rodeo Drive. 

, Silly name, North Rodeo. And La Cienega’s a silly 
name, too. And Las Palmas! 

All right, Barbara! 

How could anybody in his right mind name a street 
Las Palmas? I’ll never live on Las Palmas. Never, 
never! 

So don’t live on Las Palmas! 

You don’t much care where I live, do you? 

No, I don’t! 


"Meade Roberts, A Palm Tree in a Rose Garden (New York: Dramatists Play 
Service, 1958), 51-56. 


BARBARA: 


CHARLIE: 


BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 


CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 


CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 


You’d much rather forget where I live. Like 
you almost forgot this afternoon! If I had any 
pride, I wouldn’t have gone with you tonight! 
I shouldn’t have anyway. It wasn’t much fun! 
Well, you were the one who wanted to sulk! Nobody 
else was sulking. Everybody was having a fine time! 
Everybody was joking and singing songs! Every¬ 
body was having a fine time! 

Were you? 

Sure I was. 

You weren’t joking and singing songs. You were 
with Victor in a corner—talking! Gab, gab, gab, all 
night long. Everybody felt sorry for me! 

Nobody felt sorry for you! (. H al f-r i sin g:) I got to go 
home. 

Sit down!—There’s something I have to ask you! 
Did you talk to Victor tonight? 

{ Mis-voice rising. ) You know I talked to Victor to¬ 
night! What’s the matter with you? You crazy? 

—I mean, did you talk to Victor about me? 
{ Hedging. ) Sure, sure, I talked to him about you. 
{R ises and crosses away a htt. ) 

And? 

{ After a pause. ) He’s not making the picture. 

Not making—! What in hell do you mean? 

What in hell do you think I mean? He’s not making 
the picture. 

{ Build i ng .- ) So I don’t have a part in the picture! I’m 
out? So I’m in the doghouse again! 

Listen, will you— 

{ Near sbouAng- m ow-. ) I’m in the doghouse again! 
Shut up! 

You’re a liar! A goddamned liar! He is mak¬ 
ing the picture! You never mentioned me to 
him! 

{ Angrily: ) Call him, if you don’t believe me! 

{ Ris e s. ) I don’t have to call him! I’ll go see him! Right 
now! Who is he anyway? 




203 


FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


Charlie: Listen! { But Barbara is sobbing now, and Charlie loses hi s 
anger and - takes - her ■ in - his ■ arms. ) 1 

Barbara: ( Crump A n g r ) Charlie—Charlie—Charlie— 
charlie: Now, it’s not that important— 

Barbara: { Sobbing. ) But it is, it is— 

charlie: { Quietly. ) Why don’t you just go inside and lie down? 
Barbara: { A little-girl again. ) Will you go inside with me? 
charlie: It’s late— 

Barbara: { Shouti n g - agaiiu ) All right, don’t go inside with me! 

I don’t want you to anyway! You’re not that good. 
I just thought you wanted to! ( . . . Barbara starts 
toward the house, then-stops ■and faces him,-a queer" e xpres¬ 
sion on her-face: ) Charlie? 
charlie: What? 

BARBARA: { Slowly — quietly. ) Charlie—if the deal is dead—why 
are you seeing Victor in the morning?—You’re hid¬ 
ing something. What is it? 
charlie: I’m not hiding anything. 

Barbara: { As matter offaetly as possible. ) Yes, you are. I can tell. 

What are you hiding? 
charlie: I — 

Barbara: Come on. { Laughing in spite - of herself.- ) Mama wants to 
know! { There is a long, long moment during which Charlie 
averts her glanc e . -) Come on. 
charlie: I’m—leaving, Barbara. 

Barbara: Leaving? What do you mean, leaving? 
charlie: I’m going to Rome with Victor. 

Barbara: Rome? 

charlie: Victor’s doing a picture there. 

Barbara: When did all this come about? 
charlie: Tonight. 

Barbara: You mean it was all thought up and decided tonight? 
charlie: More or less. 

Barbara: I see. { Exploding suddenly ) Hdw can you lie in my 
face like that? How can you stand there expecting 
me to believe you? 
charlie: Barbara! 

BARBARA: And don’t tell me to quiet down! ’Cause I won’t! Let 



everybody hear! I want them to hear! —How stupid 
do you think I am? 

Charlie: I refuse to discuss this with you if you’re going to 
be hysterical! 


BARBARA: 


CHARLIE: 


BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 

CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 


CHARLIE: 

BARBARA: 


I’ll be as hysterical as I want! I don’t get ditched that 
easy, my friend. 

{Flaring up-.) What do you expect me to do? Turn 
down the job? —Are things so hot for me now that 
I can turn it down? What do you expect me to do? 
{ P e tulantly. ) Take me to Rome, that’s what I expect 
you to do! Take me to Rome with you! 

I can’t do that. 

—Yes, you can— 

—I can’t— 

You have to! You brought me back!— 

—I can’t discuss this until you’re calm!— 

I’m not going to be calm. What’s going to happen to 
me? Where’ll I go? You expect me to go back to 
Cleveland?— 

{A way out. ) You have your family— 

The hell, with my family! They don’t care wheth¬ 
er I’m alive or dead! —Why should I go back to 
them?— 


Charlie: —1 hen don’t go back! 

Barbara: What am I going to do? 

Charlie: {After a pause — q uietly. ) It’s time you figured that out 
for yourself. —Good night. { He exits to the street. ) 

Barbara: { With terrifying frenzy, ■■) It’s not going to be that easy, 
you hear! (-■■ . - Shouting after Charlie. ) —It’s not going 
to be that easy! You’ll be sorry, Charlie! I’ll make 
you sorry! You’ll see I’ll make you sorry! {So bb i n g 
c onvulsively, Barbara-rushes about wildly and violently 
n e eding something to destroy picks up a small stone and 
fl i ngs it. . . . ) 


Emotionally, this scene is a Hollywood scene. That means that 
everybody in it is a liar. Wendy, why did you go to the party?” 



205 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 

“I think that I went there to get a job, an acting job,” Wendy 
says. 

“Ralph took you there to introduce you to a director who was 
going to give you a part. Did he talk to the director?” 

“Yes. He talked to Victor.” 

“Did you get the part?” 

“No.” 

“Why aren’t you getting it?” 

“He talked to the director only about himself.” 

“Of course. That’s Hollywood. First he tells you that they’re 
not going to make the picture; then he admits that they are, and 
that he’s going to Rome and act in it, right?” 

“Yes.” 

“What does that make him?” 

“A liar.” 

“What does that make you?” 

“A nothing,” Wendy says. 

“So you’re a nothing? How did you do at the party?” 

“Not very well.” 

“Why not?” 

“Because he was talking to the director all the time and wasn’t 
talking to me, and I was sulking and everybody was feeling sorry 
for me.” 

'Who was feeling sorry for you?” 

“/ was. I was feeling sorry for me.” 

“What were the other people doing?” 

“They were laughing.” 

“Having a good time?” 

“Yes,” Wendy says. 

“One of the big stars said, 'Here, girlie, get me a drink.’ How 
did you feel about that?” 

“I wanted to die.” 

“ ‘I want to die because of what happened’ is the preparation 
for this scene. You follow?” 

“Yes.” 

“But if you’re in a condition where you honestly want to die, it 
doesn’t last for only a minute, it goes on and on. Do you under¬ 
stand?” 



206 

“Yes.” 

Charlie never introduced you; he never even mentioned you 
want to die’ is a good emotional springboard for this exercise ’ 
Meisner turns to Ralph. “Did you get work?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Did she get work?” 

“No.” 

“How do you feel about that?” 

“I don’t want to hear it.” 

“Why not?” 

“Because it’s a downer. It’s just negative. I’ve got better things 


“To hell with her! Let her go back to Topeka, right?” 

ieah, it’s not my responsibility.” 

“Sure! So it’s a scene about a girl who, rightly or wrongly, , 
desolate about the death of someone or the loss of somethin 
at s precious to you, Wendy, and that you, Ralph, don’t give ' 

down?’’ b ° Ut ‘ D ‘ d y ° U Underst ^ nd that? What did you writ 

“I wrote down,” says Ralph, who has been making notes on th< 
pages of a small notebook, “ ‘She is desolate and I don’t care.’ ’ 
Instead of ‘I don’t care,’ write down, ‘indifferent— i-n-d-i-f-e- 

double-r-e-n-t. Then prepare and work with the script. We’ll see 
what you do.” r 


October 25 


jnvait a minute. Wait a minute. Do you know the lines more o: 

Some I do, some I don’t,” Wendy says. 

“AU right. Throw yourself on that bed. Throw yourself!” 
Wendy walks to the foot of the bed and sits. 

That’s throwing?” Meisner asks and the class laughs “Now 
and this is the worst direction of all time-get hysterical' 1 
don t hear anything. More!” Wendy begins to sob out loud. 

■'ThT J e ^ ed! Kiil the bed! " She »ut » loud cry of pain. 
1 hat s good! Now say your lines!” r 



207 


FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


“Sit down,” Wendy says to Ralph. 

“Never mind him. Just stay hysterical.” 

“I can’t stay long,” Ralph says. “I have an appointment with 
Victor in the morning.” 

“Victor! Victor! Victor! Where were we tonight?” 

“At Victor’s.” 

“I know we were at Victor’s. Where’s Victor’s?” 

“On North Rodeo Drive.” 

“I know North Rodeo—that’s a silly name! And La Cienega’s 
a silly name and so is Las Palmas! I’ll never,” Wendy says with 
manic intensity, “live on Las Palmas! Never! Never!” 

“So don’t live on Las Palmas,” Ralph says with such blatant 
indifference to her suffering that the class laughs in surprise. 

“You don’t much care where I live, do you?” Wendy says 
coldly. 

“No, I don’t care where you live.” 

“Don’t look at him,” Meisner says, “just stay hysterical!” 

“You don’t care where I live, do you?” Wendy says in a louder 
voice. 

“Wendy, lie down!” Meisner says. 

She lies back on the bed and begins to sob. “You don’t. . . care 
. . . where I live ... do you?” 

“No, I don’t care where you live,” Ralph repeats calmly. 

“Hit the bed!” Meisner says. 

“This evening! It wasn’t much fun!” 

“You’re the one who wanted to sulk. Everyone else was having 
a fine time. Everyone was joking and singing.” 

“Were you?” 

“Sure I was.” 

“Yeah, you were having a fine time! You were over in the 
corner talking with Victor all night long! Gab, gab, gab! Every¬ 
body felt sorry for me,” Wendy wails. 

“Nobody felt sorry for you, Barbara. I’m leaving!” Ralph says. 
His turn toward the door prompts an unclear emotional outburst 
from Wendy. “Did you talk to Victor tonight?” she finally asks. 

“Of course I talked with Victor tonight.” 

“I didn’t see you talk to Victor about me!” 

Meisner interrupts. “Don’t look at him once!” 




208 



“Didn’t you talk to Victor about me?” 

“Sure. Sure.” ./ ■-v■ ■ - 

“And?” a.'a ■■'■■'■•n.-r-i ■ * ,* * , 

“He’s not making the picture!” 

“Ah! Why in hell isn’t he making that picture?” 

“What in hell do you think I mean?” Ralph says. “He’s not 
making the picture.” 

“Ah! Ah! Ah!” Wendy exclaims, and with each cry she bangs 
her head against the wall. She is hysterical with frustration and 
anger, and her emotion is at once real and funny. “And I’m in 
the doghouse again!” she says, and the class laughs. “You’re a liar. 
He ir making the picture!” 

“If you don’t believe me, why don’t you just call him up?” 

“I’ll call him! Who the hell is he, anyway?” She is sobbing 
loudly. “Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie!” 

“It’s not that important,” Ralph says firmly. 

“Oh, it is!” she cries, and then, clenching both fists, she emits 
a cry of impotent rage—“Ahhh!”—and the class laughs. 

“Why don’t you lie down?” Ralph says. 

“Will you lie down with me?”- ■ 

“No, it’s late. I got to go.” ' 

“Okay, go!” she says, suddenly directing her anger at Ralph. 
“You’re not that good, anyway. I just thought you wanted to. 
Charlie?” 

“What?” 

“If he’s not making the picture, then why are you seeing him 
tomorrow morning? You’re hiding something from me! I know 
you’re hiding something from me!” She suddenly bangs the back 
of her head against the wall once again. “You’re hiding some¬ 
thing from me. I know you’re hiding something! Mama wants to 
know. Why?” 

“I’m leaving, Barbara. I’m going to Rome with Victor in the 
morning.” 

“Ah!” she says, as if he has stabbed her. “Rome? When did all 
this come about?” 

“Tonight.” 

“Was this all decided tonight?” 

“More or less.” 


FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH” 


209 


“I see,” she says calmly, and then suddenly loses control again. 
“You stand there and lie to me like that! How stupid do you think 
I am? Don’t tell me to keep quiet because I’m not keeping quiet! 
I’ll be hysterical if I want to be! Ahhgh! Ahhgh! Ahhgh!” 

“I’m not going to talk to you unless you calm down.” 

“I’m not going to calm down! I don’t want to be calm! Take 
me with you! Take me to Rome!” This sudden shift is funny, and 
the class laughs. “You have to, you have to, you have to! What 
happened to me? What in hell happened to me? Where am I going 
to go? What am I going to do? I’ll die if I have to go back to 
Cleveland!” 

“Well, don’t go there,” Ralph says, then turns on his heel and 
walks out the door. 

“I’ll make you sorry. I’ll make you sorry, Charlie!” Wendy 
says, and the class laughs. 

“I liked that very much,” Meisner says. “That’s a picture of a 
Hollywood actress who didn’t get the job. It happens about three 
thousand times a day in Beverly Hills,” he adds. “That's the 
scene! A girl from Cleveland comes to Hollywood and she’s been 
there for five years and hasn’t even gotten into a manager’s office. 
Her friend promises her he’s going to get her a part, but he 
doesn’t even mention her! You know, she makes fun of all the 
streets in Beverly Hills, right? That’s like being so angry at New 
York that you go”—Meisner shakes his first—“ ‘Fifth Avenue, 
Fourth Avenue, Third Avenue, Lexington—I hate them all!’ It’s 
not a geography lesson.” The class laughs. “Listen, Ralph, in this 
scene you find yourself in the presence of somebody who is 
beside herself over something you consider unimportant. It’s as 
if you’re saying, ‘I’m going to the movies with another girl to¬ 
morrow night,’ and she throws one of her temper tantrums. Well, 
you’re still going.” 

Ralph nods. 

“Ray, what did you think of it?” Meisner asks. 

“It was wonderful.” 

“Tell them.” 

“Tell them? It was hysterical.” 

“Why?” 

“There were two completely different things happening,” Ray 



210 


says, “yet they were working off each other. She was terribly 
frustrated and he was blase, and that’s what real comedy is. For 
the third reading it was great'” 

“We’ve spent a lot of time—I don’t know how much—on the 
problem of using yourself truthfully. Now we’re beginning to 
edge up on the problem of playing the part. The emphasis has 
been primarily on ‘This is what I’m doing and I’m doing it 
truthfully.’ Now the question coming up is l How do I do it?’ Do 
you all understand? Is this shift clear?” 

“So we’re bearing on the problem of not only being truthful, 
but of playing the role,” Ralph says. 

“Of playing the part, yes. Wendy, did I force you to play the 
part of that dizzy Hollywood actress?” 

“Yes.” 

“We’re not only bringing truth to it. We’re also doing some¬ 
thing specifically dictated by the character and the circum¬ 
stances,” Ralph says. 

“So what was the point of today’s class?” Meisner asks Bette. 

“We’re supposed to look at the character instead of ...” 

“Instead of merely the truth,” Meisner says, turning to the 
class. How many of you want to do this kind of work?” 

Every student shoots up a hand. 


November 1 

Golden Boy* by 
Clifford Odets 
act 1, scene 4 

A few nights later. 

Joe and Lorna sit on a bench in the park. It is night. There is carrousel 
music in the distance. Cars ride by in front of the boy and girl in the late 

“Clifford Odets, Six Plays of Clifford Odets (New York: The Modern Library, 
1939), 262-267. 



FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH' 


211 


spring night. Out of sight a traffic light changes from red to green and 
back again throughout the scene and casts its colors on the faces of the boy 
and girl. 


lorna: 


JOE: 

lorna: 

joe: 

lorna: 

joe: 


lorna: 

joe: 

LORNA: 

JOE: 

lorna: 

joe: 

lorna: 

Joe: 

lorna: 

Joe: 

lorna: 

Joe: 

lorna: 

JOE: 

lorna: 

Joe: 


Success and fame! Or just a lousy living. You’re 
lucky you won’t have to worry about those 
things. . . . 

Won’t I? 

Unless Tom Moody’s a liar. 

You like him, don’t you? 

( After a-pa u se ) I like him. 

I like how you dress. The girls look nice in the sum¬ 
mertime. Did you ever stand at the Fifth Avenue Li¬ 
brary and watch those girls go by? 

No, I never did. { Sw i tching the subject. ) That’s the carou¬ 
sel, that music. Did you ever ride on one of those? 
That’s for kids. 

Weren’t you ever a kid, for God’s sake? 

Not a happy kid. 

Why? 

Well, I always felt different. Even my name was spe¬ 
cial—Bonaparte—and my eyes . . . 

I wouldn’t have taken that too serious. . . . ( There is-a 
silent pause. Jo e looks straight ahead. ) 

Gee, all those cars . . . 

Lots of horses trot around here. The rich know how 
to live. You’ll be rich. . . . 

My brother Frank is an organizer for the C.I.O. 
What’s that? 

If you worked in a factory you’d know. Did you ever 
work? 

{ wtth a smile ) No, when I came out of the cocoon I was 
a butterfly, and butterflies don’t work. 

All those cars . . . whizz, whizz. { Now turning - less cas- 
ualr) Where’s Mr. Moody tonight? 

He goes to see his kid on Tuesday nights. It’s a sick 
kid, a girl. His wife leaves it at her mother’s house. 
That leaves you free, don’t it? 



■ 7 

. - ' V V*J§ 

lorna: What are you hinting at? 

joe: I’m thinking about you and Mr. Moody. 

lorna: Why think about it? I don’t. Why should you? 

joe: If you belonged to me I wouldn’t think about it. 

lorna: Haven’t you got a girl? 

joe: No. 

lorna: Why not? , > • 

JOE: (e vasively ) Oh ... 

lorna: Tokio says you’re going far in the fighting game. 
joe: Music means more to me. May I tell you something? 

lorna: Of course. 

joe: If you laugh, I’ll never speak to you again. 

lorna: I’m not the laughing type. 

joe: With music I’m never alone when I’m alone—Playing 

music . . . that’s like saying, “I’m a man. I belong here. 
How do you do, World—good evening!” When I play 
music nothing is closed to me. I’m not afraid of people 
and what they say. There’s no war< in music. It’s not 
like the streets. Does this sound funny? 
lorna: No. 

joe: But when you leave your room . . . down in the street 

. . . it’s war! Music can’t help me there. Understand? 
lorna: Yes. 

joe: People have hurt my feelings for years. I never forget. 

You can’t get even with people by playing the fiddle. 

If music shot bullets I’d like it better—artists and peo¬ 
ple like that are freaks today. The world moves fast 
and they sit around like forgotten dopes. 
lorna: You’re loaded with fireworks. Why don’t you fight? 
joe: You have to be what you are—! 

lorna: Fight! see what happens— 
joe: Or end up in the bughouse! 

lorna: God’s teeth! Who says you have to be one thing? 
joe: My nature isn’t fighting! 

lorna: Don’t Tokio know what he’s talking about? Don’t 
Tom? Joe, listen: be a fighter! Show the world! If you 
made your fame and fortune—and you can—you’d be 
anything you want. Do it! Bang your way to the light- 




213 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


JOE: 

lorna: 

Joe: 

lorna: 

JOE: 

lorna: 

joe: 


lorna: 

JOE: 

lorna: 

JOE: 

LORNa: 


JOE: 

lorna: 

JOE: 

lorna: 

Joe: 

LORNA: 

JOE: 

LORNA: 

Joe: 

lorna: 


weight crown. Get a bank account. Hire a great doctor 
with a beard—get your eyes fixed— 

What’s the matter with my eyes? 

Excuse me, I stand corrected. ( After a paus e?) You get 
mad all the time. 

That’s from thinking about myself. 

How old are you, Joe? 

Twenty-one and a half, and the months are going fast. 
You’re very smart for twenty-one and a half “and the 
months are going fast.” 

Why not? I read every page of the Encyclopaedia Britan- 
nica. My father’s friend, Mr. Carp, has it. A shrimp 
with glasses had to do something. 

I’d like to meet your father. Your mother dead? 

Yes. 

So is mine. 

Where do you come from? The city is full of girls who 
look as if they never had parents. 

I’m a girl from over the river. My father is still alive 
—shucking oysters and bumming drinks somewhere 
in the wilds of Jersey. I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t like 
you. 

( surprised ) Why? 

You’re too sufficient by yourself . . . too inside your¬ 
self. 

You like it or you don’t. 

You’re on an island— 

Robinson Crusoe . . . 

That’s right—“me, myself, and I.” Why not come out 
and see the world? 

Does it seem that way? 

Can’t you see yourself? 

No. ... 

Take a bird’s-eye view; you don’t know what’s right 
or wrong. You don’t know what to pick, but you won’t 
admit it. 

Do you? 

Leave me out. This is the anatomy of Joe Bonaparte. 


joe: 

lorna: 



JOE: 

LORNA 

joe: 

lorna: 


Joe: 

lorna: 

JOE: 

lorna: 

JOE: 


lorna: 

Joe: 

LORNA: 

JOE: 


lorna: 

Joe: 

LORNA: 

Joe: 

lorna: 

joe: 

lorna: 

Joe: - 



You’re dancing on my nose, huh? 'jyj 

: Shall I stop? 

No. 

You re a miserable creature. You want your arm in gek 
up to the elbow. You’ll take fame so people won’t 
laugh.or scorn your face. You’d give your soul for 
those things. But every time you turn your back your 
little soul kicks you in the teeth. It don’t give in so 
easy. 

And what does your soul do in its perfumed vanity 
case? 

Forget about me. 

Don’t you want—? 

{ suddenly quite nasty ) I told you to forget it! 

{quietly) Moody sent you after me—a decoy! You made 
a mistake, Lorna, for two reasons. I make up my own 
mind to fight. Point two, he doesn’t know you don’t 
love him— 

You’re a fresh kid. 

In fact he doesn’t know anything about you at all. 
(eba llengtngly ) But you do? 

This is the anatomy of Lorna Moon: She’s a lost baby. 
She doesn’t know what’s right or wrong. She’s a mis¬ 
erable creature who never knew what to pick. But 
she d never admit it. And I’ll tell you why you picked 
Moody! 

You don’t know anything. 

Go home, Lorna. If you stay, I’ll know something 
about you. ... 

You don’t know anything. 

Now’s your chance—go home! 

Tom loves me. 

{ after a long silence, looking ahead ) I’m going to buy a car. 

They make wonderful cars today. Even the liz¬ 
zies— 

Gary Cooper’s got the kind I want. I saw it in the 
paper, but it costs too much—fourteen thousand. If I 
found one second-hand— 



lorna: And if you had the cash— 
joe: I’ll get it— 

lorna: Sure, if you’d go in and really fight! 
joe: ( in a sudden-burst ) Tell your Mr. Moody I’ll dazzle the 

eyes out of his head! 
lorna: You mean it? 


JOE: ( looking- o n t - ah e ad ) Those cars are poison in my blood. 

When you sit in a car and speed you’re looking down 
at the world. Speed, speed, everything is speed—no¬ 
body gets me! 

lorna: You mean in the ring? 

joe: In or out, nobody gets me! Gee, I like to stroke that 

gas! 

lorna: You sound like Jack the Ripper. 
joe: ( standing up suddenly ) I’ll walk you back to your house 

—your hotel, I mean. ( Lorna stands. Joe continues . ) Do 
you have the same room? 

lorna: ( with - sneaking admiration ) You’re a fresh kid! 
joe: When you’re lying in his arms tonight, tell him, for 

me, that the next World’s Champ is feeding in his 
stable. 

lorna: Did you really read those Britannica books? 

joe: From A to Z. 

lorna: And you’re only twenty-one? 

joe: And a half. 

lorna: Something’s wrong somewhere. 
joe: I know . . . ( they slowly walk o u t as ) 

Fadeout 


“A certain kind of person could have many sides to his character 
or he could be simple. Now, we know from the play, Rachael, 
that you’ve been sent here to try .to persuade him to fight.” 

“That’s right.” 

“What do you know about him?” 

“I know that he has two very definite sides to him. On the one 
hand, he wants to fight. On the other, he’s sensitive, a musician, 
and he has to make a decision now that will affect the rest of his 
life.” 



“Why are you here?” 

I m here because Tom Moody wanted me to convince him to 
fight.” 

“How do you feel about that?” 

I feel that I owe it to Tom. He’s been good to me, and I’m 
doing it for him.” 

“So you’re doing it to pay somebody back, would vou sav 5 ” 

“Yes.” r ' 

“How do you feel about Joe?” 

“I feel that he’s very vulnerable, but I know he has a wonderful 
opportunity. He has a choice, and I really don’t have a lot of 
sympathy with that. I sympathize more with Tom because he 
really doesn’t have a choice. He’s a loser.” ' 

“Does Joe make you nervous?” 

“Yes.” . 

“Why?” 

“Because I feel drawn to him, and I don’t want to be.” 
“What else do you feel about, him?” 

“Well, he’s very different from the people that I’m used to.” 

“In what way?” 

“I think it’s mostly his sensitivity. A young man who’s sensi¬ 
tive and intelligent. He’s not the usual type hanging around 
boxing rings.” 

“Is that his dominant characteristic?” 

“No, the most dominant is his anger. He wants to get back at 
the world because he hates it that people have made him feel 
different.” 

“Why do you want to get back at the world?” Meisner asks Ray. 

Because I m different. Because people have made fun of me. 
Because I can t get ahead. Because I don’t know which direction 
to go in.” Ray pauses for a moment and then adds, “Because I’ve 
got a funny name and my eyes are weird.” 

If you go into a butcher shop and ask for a couple of pounds 
of lamb chops and the butcher seems to hear you but waits on two 
other people before you, how do you feel?” 

“I want to reach over the counter and grab him by the tie and 
tell him not to ignore me!” 

Why do you have that curious reaction?” 



“Because people do it to me all the time. They behave as if I’m 
not there.” 

“The nature of neuroses is very peculiar. Why would your 
neuroses make you a good fighter?” 

“Because it’s power. It fuels my anger and it’s what makes it 
possible for me to fight.” Again Ray pauses for a moment. “Be¬ 
cause everybody I fight is the rest of the world.” 

“What’s the name of the heavyweight who just quit?” 

“Muhammad Ali?” 

“Yeah. Do you think that his neuroses were part of what made 
him a champion?” ' 

“Yes.” 

“So Joe Bonaparte is like an unrecognized Muhammad Ali. Do 
you follow?” 

“Yes.” 

“Rachael, how would you like to argue with Muhammad Ali 
that white people are superior to colored people?” 

“I don’t think I’d like to.” 

“Suppose you had to?” 

“It would make me very nervous.” 

“To say the least.” 

“Yeah.” 

“So we’re really talking about two neurotics, each in his own 
way, right?” 

Ray and Rachael nod. 

“All right,” Meisner says, “prepare and let’s hear a reading.” 

They leave the room to prepare and when the reading is over, 
Meisner says, “I want to talk about this. You’ve got something 
bordering on the character.” 

“Are you talking about me?” Ray asks. 

“Yeah. Rachael, why does she say, ‘I don’t like you’?” 

“She can’t control him. He’s locked inside himself and she 
can’t get to him.” 

“I’ll help you,” Meisner says. “He’s just told you about himself, 
hasn’t he?” 

“Yes.” 

“Ray, what did you say?” 

“I told her that people always make fun of me and that I don’t 



iilB 


forget it. That I wish music could shoot bullets so that I could 
get back at those people. That music makes me feel like a man. 
I can say, ‘Here I am and it’s okay to be that.’ But at the same time 
I feel that people who play music just sit around like forgotten 
dopes while the world passes them by.” 

“Where does she say, ‘I don’t like you’?” 

“It’s a little later on.” 

“It’s after he asks her about herself,” Rachael says. 

“That’s right. How does she feel about herself?” 

“She doesn’t feel good at all about herself.” 

“Her past is very sad, but she tells him about it, and then she 
says, ‘I don’t like you.’ Why does she say that?” 

“To change the subject?” 

“No, he doesn’t listen to a word you say. He’s entirely wrapped 
up in himself.” 

“I see,” Rachael says. 

“How come I didn’t know that?” Ray says. 

“Because I’m smarter than you!” Meisner says, and the class 
laughs. “Ray, why does he like cars?” 

“Because they make him feel that he’s on top of the world. 
When he goes fast in a car the sensation matches the energy that’s 
pent-up inside him and he feels more at peace. I’m making this 
up,” Ray adds. 

“Of course,” Meisner says. “Where else are you going to get it? 
Cars are powerful.” After a pause Meisner continues. “Don’t you 
see how all of this, Rachael, has a tantalizing effect on you? He’s 
pathetic, and yet there’s something tragic about him, something 
dangerous.” 

“Yes.” 

“The cue is when you say, ‘You know, I don’t like you.’ You 
get it, Ray, don’t you?” 

“Yeah. He’s ready to punch you in the mouth one minute and 
then to apologize sweetly the next.” 

“Do you realize how much sadism there is in him when he 
says, ‘If only violins had bullets’?” 

“I had a sense of that, but maybe I didn’t realize how much 
there is.” 

“Rachael, a person like that can make you nervous.” 



FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 21 V 

“Yes.” 

“Your walk with him from Moody’s office to the park was 
nerve-racking, you follow? You’re not using your powder puff 
because you want to make sure your powder is smooth. Why do 
you use it?” 

“Sweat?” Rachael asks. 

“Sweat! Have you got a clearer idea?” 

“Yes,” Ray says. “It’s much clearer.” 

“Well, work on that.” 


November 8 

“That was much better, but Rachael, it’s not passionate enough. 
Lorna’s feelings have been very hurt and I think that makes you 
angry.” 

“You mean it has to be more sad?” 

“No, more vigorous! Why does she say, ‘Tom loves me’? Why 
doesn’t she say, ‘I love Tom’?” 

“Because she doesn’t love Tom.” 

“Why does she live with him?” 

“She owes him. He’s been good to her and he loves her.” 
“It’s because he loves her?” 

“Yes.” - 

“No, it’s because she was tired of being treated like a whore!” 
“I see.” 

“When you begin, how do you know Joe’s not going to take a 
poke at you?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Doesn’t that make you nervous?” 

“Sure, but I didn’t really want to show him that I was nervous 
because I also have to convince him—” 

“That’s literary! You be what you are! If you were a salesman 
about to enter a fancy office and will come out with a big order 
and a big commission if you’re lucky, would you be nervous?” 
“Yes.” 

“But you’d try to stay composed?” 

“Right. You mean in that situation?” 



220 


“In this situation'.” ?•%» 

“I should try to stay composed? I don’ t understands 
“You’re going to get a tremendous orderi 
nervous. Try to control it!” 

“Okay.” 

“Ray, what does driving a car fast mean?' Iustvpowe r>?JI 
going eighty miles an hour. Is it just pow'er?” 5V$$b 
“No, it’s freedom, too. Also it’s calm. The last tim'eTyoul^ 
me this question I said that it was as ifhe himself$w/0gqij[ 
eighty miles an hour, so when he gets in the car and it goes eigl 
miles an hour it’s almost peaceful. He needs to do it,” 

“It’s, sexual.” ■ 

“You have a better vocabulary than I do,” Ray says, and th’e| 
class laughs. “No, I understand what you mean.” 

“What do you think of the street?” ~ 

“That it’s war. That it’s a place where I have to fight.”?T0§|| 
“How do you feel about that?” 

“I hate it. I’m willing to fight back, but it makes me mad.”A| 
“You hate it.” 

“But I’m not going to get beat up by it. I’ll strike back.’hy^ 
“It makes you feel like nobody. That’s a terrible feeling to have.”: .. 
“A different feeling, then. Feeling like nobody is different than f 
feeling mad, isn’t it? If it makes me feel like nobody, wouldn’t it 
make the whole scene more introspective? That’s what feeling.-* 
like nobody means to me. But the Street makes me mad, so it’s the | 
opposite of introspection.” 

“ ‘If a violin could only speak bullets!’ That’s a burning aspira-.-jj 


■m 




tion! It’s too bad you’re not Jewish!” 

“Why? Do you have to be Jewish to play the scene?” '< 

“You need that kind of intensity.” 

“He’s Italian!” Ray says. 

“The same thing.” 

• “I’ll get it,” • . '- Vi 

“You had good moments this time. So did she, except she’s not; 
driving enough. Do you intimidate her?” ; 

“You mean in reality? In the rehearsal process? No, I don’t 
think I do. But it would help the scene, wouldn’t it?” y 

Meisner nods. 



||lhe Seagull by 
|;Anton Chekhov* 
%from act 3 


Borin and Medviedenko go out.) 


I 


if'ARKADINA: 

kTREPLYOV: 


arkadina: 

TREPLYOV: 

arkadina: 

TREPLYOV: 

arkadina: 


TREPLYOV: 


Oh, how he frightened me. 

It isn t good for him to live in the country. He gets 
too depressed. If you suddenly felt generous, 
Mother, and lent him a thousand or even two he 
could spend a whole year in town. 

I don t have any money. I’m an actress, not a 
banker. (P aus e .) 

Will you change my bandage for me, Mother? You 
do it so well. 

(Taking a bottle of iodine and a. box of bandages from the 
chest.) The doctor’s late today. 

Yes, he promised to be here at ten and it’s twelve 
now. 

Sit down. (She takes off his bandage.) You look as if 
you’re wearing a turban. Yesterday somebody 
asked them in the kitchen what nationality you 
were. The wound is almost healed. Just a little scar 
left. (S h e kisses hts head . ) You won’t do anything silly 
again while I’m away, will you? 

No, Mother. It was a moment of despair; I didn’t 
have any control over myself. It won’t happen 
again. ( He kisses her hands .) You have such golden 
hands, Mama. I remember a long time ago when 
you were still playing in the state theaters—I was 
very young then—there was a fight in our court¬ 
yard and one of the other tenants, a washerwoman, 
was almost beaten to death. Do you remember? She 
was unconscious when they picked her up and you 


*Jean-Claude Van Italie, trans. (New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, 
London: Perennnial Library, Harper & Row, 1977), SO-53. 



arkadina: 

TREPLYOV: 

ARKADINA: 

TREPLYOV: 

ARKADINA: 

TREPLYOV: 

ARKADINA: 

TREPLYOV: 


ARKADINA: 


TREPLYOV: 


ARKADINA: 


TREPLYOV: 


nursed her, you took medicine to her "!'^anSi vta 
washed her children in a tub. Don’t you rempi^ 
ber? , /sa: 

No. (She puts on a fresh bandage.) 

There were two young ballerinas living in that 3 
same house. You used to have them over for coffee. 

I remember that. ;4j 

They were terribly pious, weren’t they? ( Pause f 
These past few days, Mama, I’ve loved you as inno- • 
cently and completely as when I was a child. Only 
why do you let yourself fall under the influence of 
that man? 

Konstantin, you don’t understand him, he has a 
very noble character. 

When he was told I was going to challenge him to 
a duel his noble character didn’t stop him from 
being a coward. He’s leaving. An ignominious re¬ 
treat. 

Nonsense! It was I who asked him to leave. 

What a noble character! You and I are almost quar¬ 
reling over him in here and he’s probably some¬ 
where in the drawing room or the garden laughing 
at us—expanding Nina’s mind, trying to convince 
her that he’s a genius. 

You seem to enjoy saying disagreeable things to 
me. I’ve told you I respect him, and I’ll thank you 
not to speak badly of him in my presence again. 
But I don’t respect him. You want me to think he’s 
a genius, too. Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t lie about 
it: his books make me sick. 

That’s just envy. People with no talent are always 
putting down real genius. It must be very comfort¬ 
ing to you. 

{ Ironically-. ) Real genius! { Angrily? ) I’ve got more 
genius than any of you if it comes down to that. 
{ Tears off his bandage. ) You and he and your boring 
old ideas, you’ve taken over the arts, and you won’t 
recognize or tolerate anything except your own 


•H 






arkadina: 

TREPLYOV: 

arkadina: 


TREPLYOV: 

arkadina: 


TREPLYOV: 


arkadina: 


TREPLYOV: 

arkadina: 


TREPLYOV: 


conventional trivia. You want to sit and suppress 
everything else. Well, I don’t accept your high ar¬ 
tistic opinions of yourselves. I don’t accept his and 
I don’t accept yours! 

You’re decadent, that’s what you are! 

Well, then go on back to your precious theater and 
act in your trashy third-rate plays! 

I have never acted in trashy third-rate plays. Why 
don’t you leave me alone? You couldn’t even write 
a cheap vaudeville sketch. Little middle-class in¬ 
habitant of Kiev! Sponger! 

Miser! 

Beggar! ( H e -sits down-and cries softly: ) Little nobody! 
(S h e -walks up and down excitedly. ) Don’t cry! Please 
don’t cry, Kostya. ( She cries herself. ) Darling, do stop! 
( She kisses-hi m o n his forehead, his cheeks, his head. ) 
My darling, forgive me! Forgive your wicked mo¬ 
ther. I’m such a miserable person, please forgive 


me. 


If you only knew. I’ve lost every¬ 
thing. She doesn’t love me now and I can’t write. 
I have no hope. 

Don’t feel like that, my darling. It’ll all work out. 
He’s leaving today. She’ll love you again. 
( She wipes away his tears. ) There, that’s enough. 
We’ve made up now. 

( Kissing her hands. ) Yes, Mama. < 

( Tenderly. ) Make up with him, too. You don’t really 
want a duel. It’s too silly. 

All right, Mother, only please don’t make me see 
him again. That would be too much. I couldn’t 
stand it. (Trigorin comes in.) Here he is. I’m going. 
(He quickly puts the bandages and iodine back into 
the medicine chest.) The doctor will bandage me 
later. ... 


“Mary, what do you think of your son? Have you thought 
about it?” 



; “Yes. I feel guilty about him, but I also feel threatened by him. 
He’s a terrible nuisance and an embarrassment.” 

' “Why?” • ■■ 

“He’s critical of me and of my work. He dislikes my friends 
and is rude to them. I also don’t like having a big, oafish son 
around all the time. He gets in the way of my life.” 

“So you just tolerate him.” 

“I keep him off on the farm, stuck out in the country.” 

“Why?” 

- “Well, in the first place I can’t part with .money. I just can’t. 
It’s like a physical-incapacity. And it would take money to do 
anything with him. He’d have to have more education, better 
clothes. And his being as old as he ismakes me feel my age and 
makes other people aware of it. I feel it might interfere with my 
career. I think she’s desperate to keep her life as it is, and she 
doesn’t want to have somebody around that she has to do some¬ 
thing about. But also she can’t stand anybody who is with her not 
to love her.” 

“All the things you say are true. John, what about you and your 
mother and the girl you love and the writer who is flirting both 
with the girl and your mother? They’re all mixed up. Chekhov 
is a terrible playwright!” The class laughs. “What do you want?” 

“I want her to care about me. I feel that she doesn’t really pay 
much attention to me—” 

“To say the least! What you want is love from your mother, the 
kind of love you get from a mother. How did you get that ban¬ 
dage around your head?” 

“I tried to shoot myself.” 

“You must have been pretty unhappy. Why do you ask her to 
fix the bandage on your head?” 

“So that I’ll get some sympathy from her.” 

, “But it doesn’t come out that way.” 

•“Right.” 

“She tells you the truth, probably for the first time, and you 
tell her how you feel about her. Bring in the scene for next time. 
Read it very easily. By ‘easily’ I mean don’t try to make a per¬ 
formance out of it. Know why you say everything you say. Mary, 
how do you feel about his asking you to fix his bandage?” 





225 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 

“Well, I hadn’t thought about that, but I don’t think she 
minds.” 

“I think she does.” 

“You think she minds? Why? Because she resents his trying to 
kill himself and making such a fuss and getting all this attention 
and she has to do the dirty work?” Meisner nods. “I see. 

“She’s like a nurse who has to take care of a patient she has no 
sympathy for. That’s why the last part of the scene comes out of 
her so easily. It’s the way she thinks of him anyway.” 

“I see,” Mary says. 

“John, why don’t you wait for the doctor?” 

“Because I want my mother to do it as a gesture of caring and 

love” 

“Next time take an easy reading of this text. Ask yourself all 
the questions that you need to ask. Why do I do this? Why do I 
say this? Try to understand the scene. Chekhov’s terrible. He s 
really terrible.” 

“He crams too much humanity into his plays,” Ray says. 
“Why didn’t you like Baron Toozenbach?” Scott Roberts 

asks. . _ . 

“I couldn’t understand him. I understand this scene. This is 
one of his easier ones. Provided you know that ninety circum¬ 
stances go into each moment.” 


November 19 

“You know, if you took a sensitive, tremulous young man—you 
can practically see the nerves quivering in his face who believes 
that to be considered talented means to be loved, and his mother 
says, ‘You’re talentless,’ then in essence his. mother is saying 
that'she doesn’t love him. It’s tough to take, isn’t it? Basically, 
to be talented is to be loved. If I had the ability, the power, the 
influence to say to you, ‘John, stay in your father’s business 
because . .’ I’d like to see the scene when you’re home by 

yourself remembering. That’s how strong it is, except you exper¬ 
ience it right here. Understand?” 

“Yes.” 



“If you re trying to be an artist and she says to you, ‘You have 
no talent,’ what do you do?” 

‘I think I’d kill myself,” John says. 

“Yes. And Mary, you see you’ve gone a little too far. The other 
person is wounded. What do you say?” 

I m sorry, I didn’t mean that.’ But I have a lot of trouble with 
that line. It leaves almost nothing for her to do in this scene. She 
really is affected by him, isn’t she? Or is it all just superficial?” 

“He’s a pest! From the very beginning. She’s the nurse, and 
when the patient says, ‘Can I have a drink of water,’ she gives it 
to him, but under her breath, she’s saying ‘Why doesn’t he get 
out of here!’ You follow?” 

1 follow, but it’s just. . . Why is she so bad?” Mary blurts out, 
and then laughs nervously. “She’s selfish and she’s—” 

“She’s a mother!” 

“Yes.” 

“She’s an actress!” 

“Yes.” 

“She has a lover!” 

“Yes.” 

“Who’s playing around with her son’s girl!” 

“Yes.” 

“She’s got a son who’s older than the girl!” 

“Yes.” 

“It’s enough to drive her crazy!” 

“Yes.” 

“You understand?” 

“Yes.” 

“The rest of it is. submerged, but it comes to the surface pretty 
quickly.” 

“I see. Yes.” . 

“Now break him down!” Meisner says. 

“Okay. In a way, it’s all his fault. If he was man enough to keep 
his girl, we wouldn’t all be in this mess.” 

“If he was man enough to at least move to another city!” 
Meisner says, and the class laughs. 

Mary says, “I thought about that, Sandy, and my feeling is that 
it’s not that she hates him; it’s that all she can manage is—You 



227 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 



don’t buy that? I think there’s a kind of gallantry in that she does 
what she can with her own life.” 

“But he exists!” 

“And that’s the insult?” 

“Look what she calls him!” 

“Yes.” 

“It’s very destructive, isn’t it?” 

“Yes.” 

“Why does she say it? Does she mean it?” 

“Yes, I think she does.” 

“Well, mean it!” 

“Okay.” 

“Destroy him! This scene isn’t about a bandage! The scene is 
about a mother’s love—or lack of it! You could wait for a bandage, 
but you can’t wait one second more for your mother’s love. You 
follow, John?” 

“Yeah.” 

“She gives you two slaps to the face, and that’s all you feel! This 
has nothing to do with a bandage; it has to do with survival!” 

“Yes,” Mary says. 

“Prepare much more —much more. Focus on the jealousy, Mary, 
and the desolation. ,1 could go on, but go on yourself. You fol¬ 
low?” 

“Yes, I do. Do you want us to throw away the book, or should 
we read it again?” 

“It will come by itself.” 

“Okay,” 


November 8 

Summer and Smoke by 
Tennessee Williams* 
part 1, scene 6 

"Tennessee Williams’s Tennessee Williams: Four Plays (New York and Scar¬ 
borough, Ontario: New American Library, 1976), 72-83 and 112-120. 



226 


A delicately suggested arbor, enclosing a table and two chairs. Over the 
table is suspended a torn paper lantern. . . . John’s voice is audible before 
be and Alma enter. 

(from the darkness) I don’t understand why we can’t go 
in the casino. 

You do understand. You’re just pretending not to. 
Give me one reason. 

(coming into the arbor) I am a minister’s daughter. 
That s no reason. (He follows her in. He wears a white 
linen suit, carrying the coat over his arm.) 

You’re a doctor. That’s a better reason. You can’t any 
more afford to be seen in such places than I can—less! 
( b ellowing) Dusty! 

(from the darkness) Coming! 

What are you fishing in that pocketbook for? 
Nothing. 

What have you got there? 

Let go! 

Those sleeping tablets I gave you 5 
Yes. 

What for? 

I need one. 

Now? 

Yes. 

Why? 

Why? Because I nearly died of heart failure in your 
automobile. What possessed you to drive like that? A 
demon? 

( Gusty enters: ) 

A bottle of vino rosso. 
b usty. S- u - r e . (He withdraws.) 

H e y! Tell Shorty I want to hear - the “Yellow Dog 
Blu e s.” • 

alma: Please give me back my tablets. 


JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

J OHN: 

BU S TY: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 



FINAL SCEI 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

BU S T - V 

ALMA. 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

ALMA: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 


JOHN: 

alma: 


5: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 2 29 

You want to turn into a dope-fiend taking this stuff? 
I said take one when you need one. 

I need one now. 

Sit down and stop swallowing air. ( Busty - returns with 
a tall wine bottle and two thin stemmed glass e s ?) When doe s 
th e cockfight start? 

’Bout t e n-o'clock, Dr. - John - ny r 
Wh e n d ees- taha-t -■ s t -a- r -t? 

They have a cockfight here every Saturday night. Ever 
seen one? . 

Perhaps in some earlier incarnation of mine. 

When you wore a brass ring in your nose? 

Then maybe I went to exhibitions like that. 

You’re going to see one tonight. 

Oh, no, I’m not. 

That’s what we came here for. 

I didn’t think such exhibitions were legal. 

This is Moon Lake Casino where anything goes. 
And you’re a frequent patron? 

I’d say constant. 

Then I’m afraid you must be serious about giving up 
your medical career. 

You bet I am! A doctor’s life is walled in by sickness 
and misery and death. 

May I be so presumptuous as to inquire what.you’ll do 
when you quit? 

You may be so presumptuous as to inquire. 

But you won’t tell me? 

I haven’t made up my mind, but I’ve been thinking of 
South America lately. 

( sadly ) Oh .... 

I’ve heard that cantinas are lots more fun than saloons, 
and senoritas are caviar among females. 

Dorothy Sykes’ brother went to South America and 
was never heard of again. It takes a strong character 
to survive in the tropics. Otherwise it’s a quagmire. 
You think my character’s weak? 

I think, you’re confused, just awfully, awfully 



JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 

JOHN: 


alma: 

JOHN: 

alma: 


John: 

alma: 


confused, as confused as I am—but in a different 
way. . . . 

{ stretching out his legs ) Hee-haw, ho-hum. 

You used to say that as a child—to signify your dis¬ 
gust! 

( grinning ) Did I? 

{ sharply ) Don’t sit like that! 

Why not? 

You look so indolent and worthless. 

Maybe I am. 

If you must go somewhere, why don’t you choose a 
place with a bracing climate? 

' Parts of South America are as cool as a cucumber. 

I never knew that. 

Well, now you do. 

Those Latins all dream in the sun—and indulge their 
senses. 

Well, it’s yet to be proven that anyone on this earth is 
crowned with so much glory as the one that uses his 
senses to get all he can in the way of . . . satisfaction. 
Self-satisfaction? 

What other kind is there? 

I will answer that question by asking you one. Have 
you ever seen or looked at a picture of a Gothic cathe¬ 
dral? 

Gothic cathedrals? What about them? 

How everything reaches up, how everything seems to 
be straining for something out of the reach of stone— 
or human—fingers? ... The immense stained win¬ 
dows, the great arched doors that are five or six times 
the height of the tallest man—the vaulted ceiling and 
ail the delicate spires—all reaching up to something 
beyond attainment! To me—well, that is the secret, 
the principle back of existence—the everlasting strug¬ 
gle and aspiration for more than our human limits 
have placed in our reach . . . Who was it that said that 
—oh, so beautiful thing!—“All of us are in the gutter, 
but some of us are looking at the stars!” 



231 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


john: Mr. Oscar Wilde. 

alma: { somewhat — taken — aback ) Well, regardless of who 

said it, it’s still true. Some of us are looking at the 
stars! { She looks up — raptly and places her hand over 
his, 7 ) 

john: It’s no fun holding hands with gloves on, Miss Alma. 

alma: That’s easily remedied. I’ll just take the gloves off. 
(Music is heard.) 

john: Christ! { He rises■ abruptly-and lights a cigarette. ) Rosa 

Gonzales is dancing in the casino. 
alma: You are unhappy. You hate me for depriving you of 
the company inside. Well, you’ll escape by and by. 
You’ll drive me home and come back out by yourself. 

. . . I’ve only gone out with three young men at all 
seriously, and with each one there was a desert be¬ 
tween us. 

john: What do you mean by a desert? 

alma: Oh—wide, wide stretches of uninhabitable ground. 
john: Maybe you made it that way by being stand-offish. 

alma: Oh, I . . . tried to entertain them the first few times. 

I would play and sing for them in the Rectory parlor. 
john: With your father in the next room and the door half 

open? 

alma: I don’t think that was the trouble. 
john: ; What was the trouble? 

alma: I... I didn’t have my heart in it. { Sh e laughs uncertainly . ) 

A silence would fall between us. You know, a silence? 
john: Yes, I know a silence. 

alma: I’d try to talk and he’d try to talk and neither would 
make a go of it. 

john: The silence would fall? 
alma: Yes, the enormous silence. 

john: Then you’d go back to the piano? 

alma: I’d twist my ring. Sometimes I twisted it so hard that 
the band cut my finger! He’d glance at his watch and 
we’d both know that the useless undertaking had come 
to a close . 

You’d call it quits? 


JOHN: 



232 - -Qwl 

alma: Quits is what we’d call it . . . One or two times I was 

rather sorry about it. ■ 

JOHN: But you didn’t have your heart in it? 

alma: None of them really engaged my serious feelings. 

John: You do have serious feelings—of that kind? 

alma: Doesn’t everyone—sometimes? 
john: Some women are cold. Some women are what is called 

frigid. 

alma: Do I give that impression? 

john: Under the surface you have a lot of excitement, a great 

deal more than any other woman I have met. So much 
that you have to carry these sleeping pills with 
you. The question is why? (He leans over and lifts her 
veil.) 

alma: What are you doing that for? 

john: So I won’t get your veil in my mouth when I kiss you. 

alma: ( faintly ) Do you want to do that? 
john: { gently ) Miss Alma. (He takes her arms and draws her to 

her feet.) Oh, Miss Alma, Miss Alma! (He kisses her.) 
alma: Not “Miss” any more. Just Alma. 

John: ( g r inning gently ) “Miss” suits you better, Miss Alma. 

(He kisses her again. She hesitantly touches his shoulders, but 
not quite to push him away. John speaks softly to her. ) Is it 
so hard to forget you’re a preacher’s daughter? 
alma: There is no reason for me to forget that I am a minis¬ 
ter’s daughter. A minister’s daughter’s no different 
from any other young lady who tries to remember that 
she is a lady. 

John: This lady stuff, is that so important? 

alma: Not to the sort of girls that you may be used to bring¬ 
ing to Moon Lake Casino. But suppose that some 
day . . . ( She crosses-out-of-the arbor and faees -a way - f r om 
hintr) . . . suppose that some day you— married . . . 
the woman that you selected to be your wife, and not 
only your wife but . . . the mother of your children! 
( She-catches her breath at the thought. ) Wouldn’t you want 
that woman e© be a lady? Wouldn’t you want her to be 
somebody that you, as her husband, and they as her 



FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


233 


precious children'—could look up to with very deep 
respect? { There is a pa-us er ) 

john: There’s other things between a man and a woman 

besides respect. Did you know that, Miss Alma? 
alma: Yes. ... 

john: There’s such a thing as intimate relations. 

alma: Thank you for telling me that. So plainly. 
john: It may strike you as unpleasant. But it does have a 

good deal to do with . . . connubial felicity, as you’d 
call it. There are some women that just give in to a 
man as a sort of obligation imposed on them by the 
... cruelty of nature! { He finishes his-g l ass and pours 
anot h er -.-) And there you are. 
alma: There I am? 
john: I’m speaking generally. 

alma: Oh. 

{ Hoarse shouts go up from the eastno r) 
john t Th e cockfighi has start e d! 

alma: Since you have spoken so plainly, I’ll speak plainly, 
too. There are some women who turn a possibly beau¬ 
tiful thing into something no better than the coupling 
of beasts! But love is what you bring to it. 
john: You’re right about that. 

alma: Some people bring just their bodies. But there are 

some people, there are some women, John . . . who can 
bring their hearts to it, also . . . who can bring their 
souls to it! 

john: ( i deri s iv e ly ) Souls again, huh? Those Gothic cathedrals 

you dream of! 

{ There is-another hoarse prolonged shout from the Cas t no r) 

Your name is Alma, and Alma is Spanish for soul. 
Some time I’d like to show you a chart of the human 
anatomy that I have in the office. It shows what our 
insides are like, and maybe you can show me where 



the beautiful soul is located on the chart. (He-drains the 
mne bottle. ) Let’s go watch the cockfight. 

alma: No! {There is a pause. ) 

John. I know something else we could do. There are rooms 
above the casino. ... 

alma: (he rdsack. stiffening ) I’d heard that you made suggestions 
like that to girls that you go out with, but I refused to 
believe such stories were true. What made you think 
I might be amenable to such a suggestion? 

John: I counted your pulse in the office the night you ran out 

because you weren’t able to sleep. 

alma: ' The night I was ill and went to your father for help. 

John: It was me you went to. 

alma: It was your father, and you wouldn’t call your father. 

John: Fingers frozen stiff when I— 

alma: Oh! I want to go home. But I won’t go with you. I will 
go in a taxi! (S he wheels about hysterically. ) Boy! Boy! Call 
a taxi! 

john: I’ll call one for you, ; Miss Alma . . . Taxi! (He goes out 

of the arbor.) 

alma: ( wildly ) You're not a gentleman! 

John: ( from th e darkness ) Taxi! 

alma: You ’re not a gentleman! 

( As he disappears she makes a sound in her throat like a hurt 
a nimal. The light fades out of the arbor and comes up more 
distinctly on the stone angel of the fountain-. ) 

“In a way, I liked this reading quite well. I think that you both 
had a feel for the characters. Joseph, the hedonism that you had 
in contrast to Anna’s desperation about being in this situation 
was good. The things that were missing are relatively minor. For 
example, it was a little too glib, Joseph. What you do, you do 
partially to arouse her, to tempt her and to enjoy her shockability 
—which she responds to. Anna, you don’t give enough time in 
the very beginning, when you almost have to come out of a faint. 
But essentially the spirit here was correct.” 

Joseph gives Anna a quick smile. 

“Now I have taught you—or I have brought out of both of you, 



FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH” 


235 


if you prefer—a degree of reality which is commendable. Every 
moment must have a reason for being there. You don’t say to her, 
‘You know, they’ve got rooms upstairs,’ without knowing damn 
well what it means, and the effect it will have on her. You know 
the effect, but you want to witness it. In a way, John is quite 
a sadist. You need to give her time to recuperate from the shock 
of your driving. Usually people make this trip from town 
in twenty-five minutes, and you made it in ten! But that’s sec¬ 
ondary. You got the devil-may-care quality of this man, and 
that’s what’s important; All in all, the general picture is essen¬ 
tially correct: it’s a scene between a carefree guy and a neu¬ 
rotic woman. But the details are still not sharp enough, and you 
have to ask yourself what they mean, to you. Do you under¬ 
stand?” 

“Yes,” Joseph says. 

“Anna, this girl wants so many of the things that are associated 
with life, but she is constantly in conflict between her real wishes 
and her upbringing. I think that she’s perpetually—I hate to use 
this word —nostalgic about being happy. Do you understand?” 

“No,” Anna says. 

“If she looks through the window of her living room and sees 
a girl and a fellow walking down the road holding hands, it 
creates a great poignancy in her. You follow? She’s deprived of 
life. She’s afraid of life, but the deprivation hurts her just the 
same. That he brings her here to the casino, that he suggests that 
they go upstairs—everything he does is against her education. 
The point is she wants to, but she’s afraid. It’s tragic.” 

Anna nods and Meisner turns to Joseph again. 

‘That was all right. The liveliness of it, the ready acceptance 
of the facts of life—girls, cockfights and so on. It was much more 
relaxed emotionally, Joseph. You know, you’re a different kind 
of actor now than you were six months ago.” 

“Am I? I don’t know.” 

“You’re freer.” 

Joseph laughs. “I hope so. I mean, that’s what I’m working 
for.” 

“Emotionally freer, yet you still don’t know why you say what 
you say at each moment. You should have both.” 



“Yes, I know. There were some moments I was able to work 
on. In others the realization isn’t there yet.” 

“So do it again.” 


November 15 

Joseph places two metal chairs together to form a bench on the 
right side of the acting area; then he and Anna, closing the door 
behind them, leave to prepare for the scene. 

“The amplifier’s not on, is it?” Meisner asks. 

“No,” several voices reply. 

“But you can hear me anyway?” 

“Yes.” 

“Cancer is a great thing.” 

“Did you say, ‘Cancer is a great thing’?” Ray asks. “Why is 
that?” 

“I can talk and I have no larynx,” Meisner says, and the class 
laughs uneasily. “You don’t see, the humor in it?” 

“I see the humor,” Ray says, “but I missed the word ‘black.’ ” 

In a few moments the door opens, Joseph and Anna enter, and 
the scene begins. “I don’t see why we can’t go into the casino,” 
Joseph says with a genial chuckle as if to say it would be fun, but 
that it’s not important. “You do understand . . . you’re just pre¬ 
tending not.ro,” Anna says in a low, tense, breathy voice as if it 
were difficult for her to inhale this air. Her shoulders are 
wrapped in a white cotton shawl held tightly around her body 
more for protection than for warmth. She clutches a black leather 
handbag in her right hand. 

“Give me one reason,” Joseph says affably. “I’m a minister’s 
daughter,” Anna says softly, almost as if she were ashamed of the 
fact. “That’s no reason,” he says. “You’re a doctor, ” Anna says 
proudly, “that’s an even better reason. You can afford to be seen 
in such places even less than I can!” She gulps a large breath, 
crosses to the bench, sits, opens the handbag and reaches into it. 

Their ensuing clash over the pills is surprisingly violent—her 
desperation is as strong as his concern—and his reading of the 
line “You want to turn into a dope-fiend taking this stuff?” sug- 



FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 


237 


gests that he really cares for her. The tremulous, breathy prepa¬ 
ration Anna entered with justifies perfectly his line “Sit down 
and stop swallowing air.” 

The shift in the conversation to the subject of the cockfight 
now becomes John’s way of covering up his concern for Alma. 
Again his tone becomes light, slightly mocking, suggesting a 
carefree quality. This mood continues into the discussion of his 
proposed flight to South America, For Alma the questions she 
asks suggest both her hunger for the least bit of information 
about him and her irrational fear of anything foreign. 

John’s line defending the sensual life—he whispers the final 
word, “satisfaction,” seductively—prompts Alma to defend her¬ 
self with the lyric speech about Gothic cathedrals. At the end, the 
placing of her gloved hand on his seems, accidental until, chal¬ 
lenged, she says in a low voice with a false air of casualness, 
“That’s easily remedied. I’ll just take the gloves off,” and her need 
for physical contact with him is painfully evident. 

John’s rejection of Alma prompts the discussion about the 
desert, the “wide, wide stretches of uninhabitable ground,” 
which she feels separate her from others. Perhaps it’s his guilt, 
perhaps his returning concern, but the questions John asks are 
posed delicately, with care, as a psychiatrist might treat an espe¬ 
cially troubled patient, until, with moving tenderness, he kisses 
her. With tears in her eyes she hesitates, and these two touching 
and very human characters play out the rest of the scene, moment 
by moment, to its unsettling conclusion. 

“Is that the end?” Meisner says after Alma’s second “You’re 
not a gentleman!” 

Anna nods and Joseph, who has left the room, returns. 

“Sit down. That was good. I was thinking. There’s a scene at 
the end of the play where she is desperate with loneliness and 
unhappiness, and is finally determined to go to him and propose 
that they live together. Do you know the scene?” 

“Is it in my office?” Joseph asks. 

“Yes. Then finally you have to tell her the truth. She comes in be¬ 
cause she can’t stand it anymore, and she finds out that you’re mar¬ 
ried. So in her pain, after she leaves—it’s very moving—she goes 
out and picks up a guy on the street, a traveling salesman. It’s sad, 



238 


Joseph. You can do nothing for her, even though you like her.” 
“Yeah.” 

“It might have been. It might have been. There’s something 
heartbreaking in that. And she makes one last desperate effort to 
see that tragedy doesn’t happen to her. Read it. If you don’t like 
it, do something else. If you like it, do it. Okay?” 

“Okay,” Joseph says. 

“He’s not cruel, as you’ll see. He’s a healthy man, and she,” 
Meisner says, looking at Anna, who is radiant from the pleasure 
of having acted well, “is a pathetic old maid.” 

Anna laughs easily. 

“Typecasting,” Meisner says, and the class laughs. “You want 
to try it?” 

“Yeah,” Joseph says. 

“Sure,” Anna says, taking a deep breath and then letting it out 
slowly. 

November 19 , 

Summer and Smoke 
part 2, scene 11 

... In John’r office . . . John is seated at a white enameled table 
examining a slide through a microscope. 

(A bell tolls the hour of five as Alma comes hesitantly in. . . .) 

alma: No greetings? No greetings at all? 
john: Hello, Miss Alma. 

alma: ( . speaking with animatim-to control her panic ) How white 
it is here, such glacial brilliance! ( She cov e rs her eyes; 
laughing . ) 

john: New equipment. 

alma: Everything new but the chart. 



FINAL. SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" ' 239 

john: The human anatomy’s always the same old thing. 

alma: And such a tiresome one! I’ve been plagued with sore 
throats. 

john: Everyone has lately. These Southern homes are all im¬ 
properly heated. Open grates aren’t enough. 

alma: They burn the front of you while your back is freez- 
ing! 

john: Then you go into another room and get chilled off. 

alma: Yes, yes, chilled to the bone. 

john: But it never gets quite cold enough to convince the 
damn fools that a furnace is necessary, so they go on 
building without them. 



alma: Such a strange afternoon. 
john: Is it? I haven’t been out. 

alma: The Gulf wind is blowing big, white—what do they 
call them? cumulus?—clouds over! Ha-ha! It seemed 
determined to take the plume off my hat, like that fox 
terrier we had once named Jacob, snatched the plume 
off a hat and dashed around and around the back yard 
with it like a trophy! 

john: I remember Jacob. What happened to him? 
alma: Oh, Jacob. Jacob was such a mischievous thief. We had 
to send him out to some friends in the country. Yes, he 
ended his days as ... a country squire! The tales of his 
exploits ... 

john: Sit down, Miss Alma. 
alma: If I’m not disturbing you . . . ? 

john: No—I called the Rectory when I heard you were sick. 

Your father told me you wouldn’t see a doctor. 
alma: I needed a rest, that was all... You were out of town, 
mostly. ... 

john: I was mostly in Lyon, finishing up Dad’s work in the 
fever clinic. 

alma: Covering yourself with sudden glory! 
john: Redeeming myself with good works. 



alma: It’s rather late to tell you how happy I am, and also how 
proud. I almost feel as your father might have felt—if 
. . . And—are you—happy now, John? 

John: ( < u ncomfortably , not looking at her ) I’ve settled with life on 
fairly acceptable terms. Isn’t that all a reasonable per¬ 
son can ask for? 

alma: He can ask for much more than that. He can ask for the 
coming true of his most improbable dreams. 

John: It’s best not to ask for too much. 

alma: I disagree with you. I say, ask for all, but be prepared 
to get nothing! ( S be sprmgs-up and crosses to tb e -windew. 
Sbe-eontinues. ) No, I haven’t been well. I’ve thought 
many times of something you told me last summer, that 
I have a doppelganger. I looked that up and I found that 
it means another person inside me, another self, and I 
don’t know whether to thank you or not for making me 
conscious of it! ... I haven’t been well. . . . For a while 
I thought I was dying, that that was the change that 
was coming. 

john: When did you have that feeling? 

alma: August. September. But now the Gulf wind has blown 
that feeling away like a cloud of smoke, and I know 
now I’m not dying, that it isn’t going to turn out to be 
that simple. ... 

john: Have you been anxious about your heart again? (He. 
re peats to a professional ma nne r - a n d takes out a silver watch, 
'putting bis fingers on her wrist.) 

alma: And now the stethoscope? (He removes the stethoscope from 
the table and starts to loosen her jacket. She looks down at 
his bent head. Slowly, involuntarily, her gloved hands lift 
and descend on the crown of his head. He gets up awkward¬ 
ly. She suddenly leans toward him and presses her mouth to 
his.) 

Why don’t you say something? Has the cat got your 
tongue?, • . 

john: Miss Alma, what can I say? 

alma: You’ve gone back to calling me “Miss Alma” again. 

john: We’ve never really got past that point with each other. 



p-FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 241 

alma: Oh, yes, we did. We were so dose that we almost 
breathed together! 

John: ( witb- e mbarrassment ). I didn’t know that. 
alma: No? Well, I did, I knew it. ( Her band touches his-face 
tenderly. ) You shave more carefully now? You don’t 
have those little razor cuts on your chin that you dusted 
with gardenia talcum ... 

JOHN: I shave more carefully now. 

alma: So that explains it! { H e r fngers.remain on-his face, - moving 
gently up-and-down it like a-hlind - person-reading-Braille-.- He 
is-int e ns e ly -- embarrassed and - gently - -removes - her - hands - from 
himr) Is it . . . impossible now? 
john: I don’t think I know what you mean. 
alma: You know what I mean, all right! So be honest with me. 
One time I said “no” to something. You may remember 
the time, and all that demented howling from the 
cockfight? But now I have changed my mind, or the girl 
who said “no,” she doesn’t exist any more, she died last 
summer—suffocated in smoke from something on fire 
inside her. No, she doesn’t live now, but she left me her 
ring ... You see? This one you admired, the topaz ring 
set in pearls. . . . And she said to me when she slipped 
this right on my finger—“Remember I died empty- 
handed, and so make sure that your hands have some¬ 
thing in them!" ( She drops her gloves. She clasps his head-agat n 
in her hands. ) I said, “But what about pride?” . . . She 
said, “Forget about pride, whenever it stands between 
you and what you must have!” ( He- takes hold of he r wrists. ) 
And then I said, “But what if he doesn’t want me?” I 
don’t know what she said then. I’m not sure whether 
she said anything or not—her lips stopped moving— 
yes, I think she stopped breathing! ( He-gently removes her 
craving hands from his face . ) No? ( H e- shakes his head in dumb 
suffering. ) Then the answer is “no”! 
john: ( forcing himself to speak ). I have a respect for the truth, 
and I have a respect for you—so I’d better speak hon¬ 
estly if you want me to speak. ( Alma nods slight 
lyh) You’ve won the argument that we had between us. 




242 


alma: What . . . argument? 
john: The one about the chart. 
alma: Oh—the chart! 

( She turns from him and—wanders across to the-chart. She-gazes 
tip— at- i t with closed eyes, — and her hands -cla s p e d—in front of 

herr) 

john: It shows that we’re not a package of rose leaves, that 
every interior inch of us is taken up with something 
ugly and functional and no room seems to be left for 
anything else in there. 
alma: No. ... 

john: But I’ve come around to your way of thinking, that 
something else is in there, an immaterial something— 
as thin as smoke—which all of those ugly machines 
combine to produce and that’s their whole reason for 
being. It can’t be seen so it can’t be shown on the chart. 
But it’s there, just the same, and knowing it’s there— 
why, then the whole thing—this—this unfathomable 
experience of ours—takes on a new value, like some 
. . . some wildly romantic work in a laboratory! Don’t 
you see? 

( The wind comes up very-loud, almost--like a choir of voices. Both of 
t hem turn-slightly , Alma raising a hand to her plumed head as if she 
were outdoors. ) 

alma: Yes, I see! Now that you no longer want it to be other¬ 
wise, you’re willing to believe that a spiritual bond can 
exist between us two! 

john: Can’t you believe that l am sincere about it? 
alma: Maybe you are. But I don’t want to be talked to like 
some incurably sick patient you have to comfort. 
{ A harsh and strong note comes into her v&ice. ) Oh, I suppose 
I am sick, one of those weak and divided people who 
slip like shadows among you solid strong ones. But 
sometimes, out of necessity, we shadowy people take 



243 


FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH” 


on a strength of our own. I have that now. You needn’t 
try to deceive me. 
john: I wasn’t. 

alma: You needn’t try to comfort me. I haven’t come here on 
any but equal terms. You said, let’s talk truthfully. Well, 
let’s do! Unsparingly, truthfully, even shamelessly, 
then! It’s no longer a secret that I love you. It never was. 

I loved you as long ago as the time I asked you to read the 
stone angel’s name with your fingers. Yes, I remember 
the long afternoons of our childhood, when I had to stay 
indoors to practice my music—and I heard your play¬ 
mates calling you, “Johnny, Johnny!” How it went 
through me, just to hear your name called! And how I— 
rushed to the window to watch you jump the porch 
railing! I stood at a distance, halfway down the block, 
only to keep in sight of your torn red sweater, racing 
about the vacant lot you played in. Yes, it had begun that 
early, this affliction of love, and has never let go of me 
since, but kept on growing. I’ve lived next door to you 
all the days of my life, a weak and divided person who 
stood, in adoring awe of your singleness, of your 
strength. And that is my story! Now I wish you would 
tell me —why didn’t it happen between us? Why did I 
fail? Why did you come almost close enough—and no 
closer? 

john: Whenever we’ve gotten together, the three or four 
times that we have . . . 
alma: As few as that? 

john: It’s only been three or four times that we’ve . . . come 
face to face. And each of those times—we seemed to be 
trying to find something in each other without know¬ 
ing what it was that we wanted to find. It wasn t a body 
hunger, although ... I acted as if I thought it might be 
the night I wasn’t a gentleman—at the casino—it 
wasn’t the physical you that I really wanted! 
alma: I know, you’ve already— 



JOHN: You didn’t have that to give me. 
alma: Not at that time. 
john: You had something else to give. 
alma: What did I have? ' 

( Jekn strikes a match. Unconsciously-he holds his curved - palm over the 
flame o f the match to warm it. It is - a-long kite-hen match and it-makes 
a -goodflame-. They both stare a-t-it with - a sorrowful understanding tha t 
ts still perplexed, It-is about to-bam ha - fi n g e rs. She leans forward and 
Males it out; then she puts on her gloves. ) > 

john: You couldn’t name it and I couldn’t recognize it. I 
; thought it was just a Puritanical ice that glittered like 

flanie. But now I believe it was flame, mistaken for ice. 
I still don’t understand it, but I know it was there, just 
as I know that your eyes and your voice are the two 
most beautiful things I’ve ever known—and also the 
warmest, although they don’t seem to be set in your 
body at all. ... 

alma: You talk as if my body had ceased to exist for you, 
John, in spite of the fact that you’ve just counted my 
pulse. Yes, that’s it! You tried to avoid it, but you’ve 
told me plainly. The tables have turned, yes, the 
tables have turned with a vengeance! You’ve come 
around to my old way of thinking and I to yours, like 
two people exchanging a call on each other at the 
same time, and each one finding the other one gone 
out, the door locked against him and no one to answer 
the bell! ( She laughs. ) I came here to tell you that being 
a gentleman doesn’t seem so important to me any 
more, but you’re telling me I’ve got to remain a lady. 
(S he-laughsfather violently-. ) The tables have turned with 
a vengeance! . . . The air here smells of ether—It’s 
making me dizzy ... 

John: I’ll open a window. 
alma: Please. 
john: There, now. 

alma: Thank you, that’s better. Do you remember those little 





FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH” 24 5 

white tablets you gave me? I’ve used them all up and 
I’d like to have some more. 

john: I’ll write the”prescription for you. (He bends to write.) 

Joseph and Anna read. She is deeply prepared, weeping openly 
at the beginning and throughout the scene. It is a moving per¬ 
formance. Joseph is stiff and uncommitted emotionally to the 
material; yet it is obvious, that his performance has great poten¬ 
tial. 

“What’s this scene about, Joseph?” 

“I’m in my office and she comes in to tell me that she’s changed 
her mind about being a lady, that she really wants to go to bed 
with me, and I’m telling her that the human soul does exist and 
that there’s more to life than our physical desires.” 

“How do you feel about her?” 

“I feel sorry for her.” 

“Is it a painful scene?” 

“Not really, from the point of view of John. It hasn’t reached 
that point yet. I mean, it’s hard—but I haven’t really broken its 
back yet.” 

“Knowing how you feel about her and that you are going to 
marry someone else, emotionally aren’t you really on her level?” 

“Not really, no. There’s a tremendous remorse and sadness on 
John’s part, but as far as what she’s bringing to the work—the 
crying and so forth—that’s not the meaning of it for me.” 

“That’s not the meaning of it for you?” 

“No, but it’s very touching. What almost was but never was. 
What almost happened but never was.” 

“When are you going to cope with that?” 

“When am I? I don’t know,” Joseph says and then pauses. “I 
have to be honest with you. I have a hard time working off her 
behavior when she’s crying like that.” 

“Wait a minute,” Meisner says. “This is a classroom.” 

“I understand that.” 

“And anything can happen in it which might not happen if 
you were really onstage.” 

“You mean I should treat it more as if it’s an exercise.” 



246 

“That’s right.” 

“I understand that, but if I were really to work off her behavior, 
mine would be different. It would be opposed to what I believe 
the scene is about. There’s a lot of pain in what I have to admit 
to her—that I’m engaged—and if she comes in crying, my initial 
impulse is to put my arms around her.” 

“But if you hold back and just have it without actually doing 
anything about it, wouldn’t it be helpful to you as an actor? 

“It would do something to me, yes.” 

“That’s what I’m looking for.” 

“Okay.” 

“She’s doing what I told her to, right?” 

“I don’t remember. Okay.” 

“She’s doing what I told her to. I say you should allow the 
sensitive human being you are to respond to that. 

“Okay.” 

“To throw out an example, if your best friend were in a terri¬ 
ble accident and you had to console his mother, who is destroyed, 
you’d be destroyed too, but something in you would say, I must 
try to be strong!’ Don’t you see?” 

“Sure.” . 

“From the point of view of treating this as an exercise, she s 
like the destroyed mother, and you, emotionally, are not far from 
where she is, but you can't let it out! Does that mean something 
to you?” 

“Yes.” 

“It’s as if you know why she’s coming over to see you, and it 
annihilates you, but you'have to contain yourself. Do you agree? 

“Sure.” 

“I don’t want you to play this scene as it theoretically should be 
played. This is a device which will stimulate you emotionally. 
You know why she’s coming over, and it does almost to you what 
it does to her, but whereas she lets it out, you try to contain it. 
The point is not to play the scene. The point is to use it as an 
exercise for a purpose. You understand?” 

“I do.” ■ -. 

“We are actors. We have more than one color in our personali- 



247 


FINAL SCENES: "INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH" 

ties. You can laugh, cry, be sarcastic, be desperate—whatever. 
This is a classroom. Maybe you can’t play the scene the way she 
did, but it has a value to her as an actor. You’re permitting 
yourself to be a little too self-watchful. That’s not the proper 
benefit to get from a class. You understand?” 

“Yes.” 

“The difference between last class’s reading and today’s is 
enormous. What difference does it make if it’s not quite right for 
the scene? A prizefighter with a rubber ball keeps squeezing it all 
the time, but he doesn’t fight that way! It’s to strengthen his 
muscles. Have I made myself clear?” 

“Yes,” Anna says. 

“You can say to a pianist, ‘That was all off when it came to 
interpreting the piece, but you had good octaves.’ Well, gradually 
it all comes together. Am I making myself clear?” 

“Yes,” Joseph says. 

“Okay. Feel free—without the book—to let it come out almost 
improvisationally. Do anything that will achieve your emotional 
freedom.” 


November 29 

Joseph and Anna sit at the gray table. She is in the upstage 
position; he sits to the side giving prominence to her. The read¬ 
ing is quiet, yet full of exquisite emotion. There is a sense of 
concentration, of controlled direction to the scene. The acting is 
compelling. The observers forget the hardness of the metal fold¬ 
ing chairs and the lateness of the hour. Anna is more subdued 
now than last week; the emotion is more controlled, bursting 
forth only toward the end of the scene. Joseph is quieter, more 
sober and reflective, feeling more deeply. 

“It’s coming along well,” Meisner says. 

“Next time should we try to incorporate some of the things 
that are suggested, like his taking my pulse?” Anna asks. 

Meisner nods. “The guilty doctor. Start learning it now.” 

“Okay,” Joseph says. 



248 : 

“Would you believe that a playwright who wrote such a lovely, 
lyric play as this would wind up the way he did?. Well, that’s life! 
But,the delicacy of this is something I’m going to talk about, and 
... Well, we’ll see.” 


December 6 

Joseph sits at the gray table writing in a notebook. After a few 
minutes Anna enters. “No greetings?” she says. “No greetings at 
all?” The scene begins. Joseph is gentle, his deep voice soothing 
and caring. Anna seems serious and utterly desperate. On the 
line “I know now I’m not dying, that it isn’t going to turn out 
to be that simple,” she begins to weep. The effect is heartbreak¬ 
ing. 

“Is it . . . impossible now?” she asks softly. And in the great 
speech that follows, the “topaz ring” speech in which she an¬ 
nounces the death of her prideful former self, her voice builds in 
emotional intensity to the terrible conclusion, “No? Then the 
answer is‘no!’” 

Joseph’s response, that he knows now that “an immaterial 
something does exist in the body, is said straightforwardly, as if 
it were a simple truth. But she cannot be placated. “You needn’t 
try to comfort me,” she exclaims, and then proceeds to the most 
painful moment of the scene. “It’s no longer a secret that I love 
you. It never was.” Then come the terrible “why” questions 
which end the speech: “Why didn’t it happen between us? Why 
did I fail? Why did you come almost close enough—and no 
closer?” ' ' , 

The acting of both students is full, clear, intelligent, simple and 
deeply felt, something like great music. On the one hand, it seems 
effortless; on the other, it. is emotionally devastating, as if a great 
tragedy has just occurred. This is underscored with irony at the 
end of the scene. “The tables have turned with a vengeance!” 
Knowing that she has lost, Alma retreats with the almost casual, 
“Do you remember those little white tablets you gave me? I’ve 
used them all up and I’d like to have some more.” “I’ll write the 
prescription for you,” Joseph says, and the scene ends. 



FINAL SCENES: “INSTEAD OF MERELY THE TRUTH” 


249 


“Is that where you end it?” Meisner asks. “It’s coming very, 
very well.” 

“Thank you,” Joseph says. 

“When it’s all finished I’ll have a few technical things to say, 
but do you want to go on with it?” 

They nod. 


December 13 

Joseph and Anna perform for the last time their scene from 
Summer and Smoke. It is well done, but her preparation is less full 
than the time before and the result is less heart-wrenching. Jo¬ 
seph has clarified his character and his feelings toward Anna, and 
his performance is complex and touching. 

Thete is a long pause after the end of the scene. “Did you learn 
something from this?” Meisner asks finally. 

“I think so,” Joseph says. 

“You don’t want to do it anymore?” 

“In one sense I would, yes, because I think it was better last 
time. We picked up the moments off each other”—he snaps his 
fingers cleanly three times—“better.” 

“Yes, last time was better.” 

“It was fuller emotionally,” Joseph says. 

“It’s an anticlimax,” Anna says. 

“What?” Meisner asks. 

“It feels—I don’t know—unsatisfying.” 

“That’s life,” Meisner says, and the class laughs. 

“Sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t,” Joseph 
says. 

“That’s right. I wonder why it was better last time. Don’t 
guess. We don’t know. It’s such a subtle question.” Meisner 
pauses. “There’s a scene in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, 
which starts out with the son talking to the murdered father 
who’s in his coffin, and the sister catches him doing it. It couldn’t 
be more different than this. Why don’t you try it next time?” 

“Okay,” Joseph says. 

“No more John and Alma?” Anna asks. “They’ve bit the dust?” 



She seems sad, as if she were parting from someone precious to her. 
“For now,” Meisner says, and the class ends. 

II 

“It’s time to say good-bye,” Meisner says on the final day of class. 

“First of all, jemember that you’re all young actors, and that 
sometimes the material you have been asked to act here was 
beyond you. More often, it was quite within your scope—most 
of it was. When that happened, you executed it well. It’s when 
the emotional problems were deeper than you were prepared by 
life to realize that you were deficient. But that’s not important, 
you know; time will fix that.” 

Ray Stanton now sits in the seat Scott Roberts once occupied. 
He turns up the volume on the machine that amplifies Meisner’s 
voice. 

“It’s very easy to give advice, so now I’m going to tell you 
something that’s impossible. Keep working all the time; do all 
kinds of plays, whether they’re right for you or not, because 
eventually time and you will catch up with each other. One other 
thing: hold on to the foundation of your technique. It’s solid. ” 
Meisner stands and holds up his right hand in a kind of salute. 
“Good-bye! I’ll see you one of these days!” he says, and the stu¬ 
dents stand too, and applaud. 




Acknowledgments 


Basic Books, Inc., and Unwin Hyman, Ltd.: Excerpt from Sig¬ 
mund Freud’s essay “The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming,” 
published in Collected Papers , Vol. 4, by Sigmund Freud, author¬ 
ized translation under the supervision of Joan Riviere. Published 
by Basic Books, Inc., by arrangement with The Hogarth Press, 
Ltd., and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London. Also pub¬ 
lished in Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sig¬ 
mund Freud, published by Unwin Hyman, Ltd. Reprinted by 
permission of the publishers. 


Davis /Cohen Associates: A scene from The Seagull by Anton 
Chekhov, translated by Jean-Claude Van Italie. Copyright © 
1974, 1977 by Jean-Claude Van Italie. First published by Harper 
& Row Publishers, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author. 

Grove Press, Inc., and Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.: A 
scene from Golden Boy by Clifford Odets. Copyright 1937 by 
Clifford Odets. Copyright renewed 1965 by Nora Odets and Walt 
Whitman Odets. Reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc., 
and Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc. 

Liveright Publishing Corporation and Chatto & Windus/The 
Hogarth Press: An excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s essay “A Gen- 




eral Introduction to Psychoanalysis,” from A General Introduction 
to Psychoanalysis, translated by Joan Riviere. Copyright 1920 by 
Edward L. Bernays. Copyright renewed 1963 by Joan Riviere. 
Copyright © 1968 by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Also 
published in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works 
of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey. Re¬ 
printed by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation, Sig¬ 
mund Freud Copyrights, Ltd., The Institute of Psychoanalysis, 
and The Hogarth Press. 

New Directions Publishing Corporation and the Estate of 
Tennessee Williams: Two scenes from Summer and Smoke by 
Tennessee Williams. Copyright 1948 by Tennessee Williams. Re¬ 
printed by permission of New Directions Publishing Corpora¬ 
tion and the Estate of Tennessee Williams. 

Riverrun Press, Inc.: A scene from Spring Awakening by Fred 
Wedekind, translated by Tom Osborn. Copyright © 1969 by 
Tom Osborn. Reprinted by permission of Riverrun Press, Inc., 
New York. 

Viking Penguin, Inc., and International Creative Management: 
Excerpt from the Introduction to The Collected Plays of Arthur 
Miller, Vol. 1 , by Arthur Miller. Copyright © 1957 by Arthur 
Miller. Copyright renewed 1985 by Arthur Miller. Reprinted by 
permission of Viking Penguin, Inc., and International Creative 
Management. 

Meade Roberts: 'A scene from A Palm Tree in a Rose Garden by 
Meade Roberts is reprinted by permission of the author. Copy¬ 
right © 1957 by Meade Roberts. 

' At' 

The Estate of Edgar Lee Masters: Excerpts from the poems “Ida 
Frickey,” “Dr. Siegfried Iseman,” “Hannah Armstrong,” 
“Harry Williams,” “Elsa Weitman,” “Julia Miller,” and “A.D. 
Blood” from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters are 
reprinted by permission of the author’s widow. Copyright 1915, 
1916, 1942, 1944 by Edgar Lee Masters. 



About the Authors 




SANFORD MEISNER 

As head of the acting department of The Neighborhood Play- 
house for forty years, Sanford Meisner is considered one of the 
greatest acting teachers of our time. As a founding member of 
The Group Theatre, Mr. Meisner also acted in many of its stage 
productions, including Awake and Sing!, Paradise Lost, An American 
Tragedy, Golden Boy and Crime'and Punishment. Some of the thou¬ 
sands of actors he has taught in his classes at The Playhouse 
include, among others, Elizabeth Ashley, Barbara Baxley, James 
Broderick, James Caan, Keir Duilea, Robert Duvall, Lee Grant, 
Lome Green, Tammy Grimes, Anne Jackson, Diane Keaton, 
Louise Lasser, Darren McGavin, Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, 
Suzanne Pleshette, Tony Randall, Jo Van Fleet, Jon Voight, Eli 
Wallach and Joanne Woodward. 


DENNIS LONGWELL 

After earning a degree in philosophy from Yale, Dennis Long- 
well studied acting with Sanford Meisner in the 1960s. He has 
also worked as an actor, teacher and museum curator! His mono¬ 
graph, STEICHEN: The Master Prints, 1895-1914, published by 
the Museum of Modern Art in 1978, is the definitive book on the 
early photographs of Edward Steichen. Mr. Longwell lives in 
Sag Harbor, New York, with his wife and two children, and is 
currently writing a biography of the American industrialist 
George Eastman. 



AVAILABLE FROM VINTAGE BOOK’S 


: PLAYS FOR ACTRESSES 

edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold 

Gather any group of actresses, from students to stars, and some- 
i orie wilR inevitably j ask ,; “Where are all the great roles for 
V women? f The, roles; are right jhere, in this unprecedented and 
-magnificently .diverse-collection of plays with all-female casts, -j 
' each of which represents the answer to any actress’s prayer.' 
Whether you’re looking for a script to produce, a scene for' 
acting class, or a new audition speech, Plays for Actresses will ' 
provide you with a wealth of juicy, challenging female roles— ! 
even as it introduces you to some of the finest playwrights at j 
work today, including Lee Blessing, Laura Cunningham, { 
Madeleine George, Paula Vogel, and Wendy Wasserstein. ,'fff 

A Vintage Original 

Drama/0-679-77281-2 , s 


TAKE TEN 
New 10-Minute Plays 
edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold 

A ten-minute play is a streak of theatrical lighting. It doesn’t 
last long, but its power can stand your hair on end. This splen¬ 
did anthology contains enough wattage to light up a small city.; 
For in its pages, thirty-two of our finest playwrights—including 
Christopher Durang, John Guare, Tony Kushner, David Mamet, 
Regina Taylor, and August Wilson—hone their skills on a form 
that has been called the haiku of the American stage. Eminently) 
producible, ideally suited for the classroom and audition, Take! 
Ten is a marvelous resource for actors, directors, and producers,) 
as well as a stimulating read for lovers of the theater. J 

• ' . • . : J 

A Vintage Original : j 

Drama/0-679-77282-0 Tj . 


Available at your local bookstore or call toll-free to order: 
1-800-793-2665 (credit cards only).